Saturday, 2 June 2012
Anthony Thwaite, extra notes I dredged out of a library sale in Nottingham a book 'The Deserts of Hesperides' by Anthony Thwaite, a 1968 travel book about Libya which sheds light on his Libya-set poems. The choice of Libya was because he felt very happy there. This was during his national service time there, and he went back to a university in Tripoli because he wanted to recover the happiness. This book records the story about Thwaite being an archaeology fan with another sergeant while stationed in Cyrenaica, and how they found a scattered hoard of Roman coins in a pool, which they brought up by diving, throughout one summer. The final count was around 7800 coins. A whole chapter, pages 150-62, describes work on his sequence of poems 'Letters of Synesius'. Synesius was barely Christian, he was a pagan who was attracted to the new religion and became a bishop without quite giving in to it. Synesius was a native of Libya and this is really why Thwaite began writing about him while living in Libya, or shortly after he had left there. Synesius wrote some poems influenced by Neo-Platonist themes. It looks as if Synesius was chosen because there is not much else written about Libya from Classical times. Callimachus came from there but identified too much with Alexandria for there to be a Libyan association of any strength. Synesius’ letters do not describe his death but they do describe wars with the desert tribes - and then his voice and he disappear. Synesius' letters lead naturally to a climax as the urban society of the shore is overrun by the nomadic tribes of the interior, untouched by Classical Mediterranean culture. What emerges is that Thwaite is not centrally writing about the threat to western culture from any source (presumably the young rather than any mounted nomads from inland sheep-herding areas). This thematic is found in books, near in date, by Peter Abbs and George Mackay Brown, for example. It's just that Thwaite is not writing about this theme at all. The thesis in the poems is about the recurring decay of urban civilisation in an arid land: the recurring superiority of the barbarians with their poverty, simplicity and heroism - and aggression. Thwaite is not writing moralised history but a story of 'human geography'. The idea could be compared to the 'Pine Processionary' poem. The perspective derives from geography - in Libya you could (more so in 1950) see the past because the infertility of the land did not lead to abundant over-building and rains, bacteria, etc. are weak in effect. The ruins are so noticeable that you naturally think about the process of ruin - so much more durable than flourishing. Major public buildings are wrecked but they do not collapse. The comparison between the abandoned buildings of the Romans and the abandoned ditto of Mussolini’s failed Empire was obvious - not only because the fascists earnestly copied the Romans. Thwaite is fascinated by open-air archaeology and has no share of the ‘paranoid conservative’ in his make-up. I was reading 'Hesperides' on the train going down to the small publishers' fair event in 2011. During a brief pub break at that event, I talked to someone who said they had bought Thwaite's Collected Poems after reading about him in my book 'Council of Heresy'. I was very happy. This is what I was trying to achieve. Maybe I can declare the project closed and have a rest. To fake affection in the course of an argument about the 'division geometry' would be objectionable and corrupt. Partly for that reason, I can't write arguments about the divisions. But if you're a critic, you don't have to build arguments. What you have to do is explain why you like works of poetry. One relatively remote part of this might be that a latent block disappeared and although it didn't speak it was the material of division. So first it doesn't speak and then it doesn't exist. The blocks might not all be hostility but because if there are 30 stimuli calling for attention you scoff 15 of them, and throw 15 away. This is 'crowd-out". So it could also be that attachment to the figures in the cultural centre satisfies the intellectual energies which could be responding to the charms of avant garde poetry. So loyalty causes the blocks. So - I can't launch a campaign against loyalty. We are surfing on loyalty all the time - I can't reflexivise the consequences of loyalty. (A recent blog-yob has described my work as 'patchy and incohesive' and no doubt they would get angry about this posting, too, simply shedding light on Anthony Thwaite. Well, here it is. If 50 poets wrote books which illuminated their poems I would cover them. But only one did.) There is a very interesting discussion of Synesius and his interest in esoteric philosophy related to the Hermetica in Garth Fowden's 'Egyptian Hermes'. This would link Thwaite with the esoteric aspects which fill much of the rest of 'Council of Heresy' - but Thwaite was not interested in this aspect of Synesius, so the connection is a complete ghost.