Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Socialist poetry of the 1950s

Note. I set up a sequence of essays on socialist poetry on my 2003 website ( but by mistake left out the one on the 1950s, which is presented below. There is more up to date information on the theme on this site at . The essays were originally in Angel Exhaust 13.
More info on 1950s here

Socialist poetry of the 1950s

This brief survey of the past of Socialist poetry has found two strands: of the simple and songlike, intimate and down to earth; and of the sublime, dazzling and precipitous, dissolving everyday awareness in abstract ideas. We could compare the first to Tony Harrison and the second to J.H. Prynne. Although the renewal of Left poetry at the end of the fifties came largely from foreign sources, we can identify in Charles Madge a third strand: of investigating the rules of perception, by which the data of the senses are transformed into social meaning; as a way of solving arguments where the sides refused common terms, or of safeguarding the beleaguered and wandering soul against illusion. This was to become central in the seventies and eighties. In the fifties the leaking-out truth about communism, before and after Khrushchev's destalinisation campaign of 1956, discredited radical Leftism in an atmosphere of Cold War. There is a general disgust with propaganda, after 20 years of mobilisation; Christianity makes a big comeback in poetry, often mingled with existentialism. The reception of Brecht in England takes place largely through two poets: Christopher Logue and John Arden, and represented perhaps the conquest of the old sentimental-moral pathos of centuries' standing by a critical view of identification. At the end of the decade, a new wave of protest poetry, apocalyptic and simplistic, is typified by Adrian Mitchell; following the first squeaks of youth culture and anticipating the protest song; the far subtler cognitive criticism of a Roy Fisher is also, bizarrely, heard on the same stages. Christopher Logue (1926- ) debuted with Wand and Quadrant in 1953. Devil, Maggot and Son (three things that pursue the hero), of 1956, is still in a New Romantic idiom which resembles D.S. Savage:

The pigeon's blood delights the peregrine.
Beezled in his scepter to be the faggot
Of a King's word. Colour of lust, mine
Accidentally with sight and range beyond
The Asian river where, gently, I washed
For centuries. The Knave my paramour;
Dyed by my signet all powerful his finger
I match the vellum that he daubs with blood.

Or on the apron of her breasts I crozier.

('A Suite for Jewels'; and scil. bezelled; the speaker is a jewel.) Logue's cynicism is cast as a country dance for characters from playing-cards, or characters from mediaeval tiles; it is sharp, bawdy, theatrical, picaresque, quite uncontemporary. It is not yet political; although the fake mediaevalism of Elizabeth's coronation ('Elizabeth Persephone, envoi and chorus') is not of Logue's couture. Rhyme, as a set of arbitrary rules, fits these characters who are trapped in the roles which their costumes announce. His evolution towards simple, rhythmically bound, forms parallels the evolution from neo-romanticism to the stilted regularity of The Movement. His model was Brecht's songs; of course Brecht's model was Kipling. Songs (1959) still contains interesting neo-romantic gestures:

So twenty weeks went by and by,
My back was straightened out my eye
Dead true as any button shone,
And nine white-bellied porpoise led,
our ship of shillings through the sun.

(...) And three by three through our curfew,
Mother we marched like black and tan,
Singing to match our captain's cheers,
Then I drank my eyes out of my head
And wet Her shilling with my fears.

('The Song of the Dead Soldier') but is also full of committed poems; the playing-card world is by now the whole bourgeois social order, admittedly shaky at that time. In the 1950s, Logue and Barker were the rakehells of English poetry, giving off a hot breath of sexuality which revealed the grey pallor of virtually everything else. Neither faction - left-wing satirists or The Movement - can have realised that the jingling efficiency of rhyme and stanzaic form was about to be exploited by the new English pop song, drowning them both. Logue's recycling of old English folk songs is rather overshadowed by Bob Dylan's. Song, rebellion, lechery, immediacy: this formula was about to be taken up by people whose surnames were Jagger or Morrison. Brechtian populism was outbid and bought up.
Lucie-Smith credits Logue with starting the poetry and jazz series of live events. In this sense, one would say that the popularity of his own idea destroyed him; the association with a live audience and popular music produced a world of bad poetry. Logue watched the pop poetry of the sixties, for which he was the inspiration, knowing it had gone terribly wrong, but not able to redirect it. A link - a kind of waste pipe - connects Songs to the Liverpool Sound. His natural environment was political cabaret; something which probably reached its peak in the twenties: although he wrote the songs for The Establishment, a satirical nightclub flourishing around 1962. Although he has expressed his enthusiasm for the era (not necessarily for its poetry), I am tempted to say that everything from the fifties lost its value in the sixties, including the Berliner Ensemble - and including Logue. Adrian Mitchell's 1964 volume must have looked equally exciting. Logue gave many live readings, published poster-poems and several more books; became a distinguished Bohemian and a popular rebel.
Ode to a Dodo, a very selective collected poems, appeared in 1981. War Music, his heroic translation of books 16-19 of The Iliad, was published in 1981; Kings, an account of books 1 and 2, followed in 1991; and Husbands, treating books 3 and 4, in 1995. Since there is a substantial extract from Book XXI (the combat of Achilles and the Scamander) in Songs (1959), he has been occupied on the project for almost forty years. Although Logue claims not to know Greek, this is not an independent creative work (something publicity agents frequently claim for translators who can scan), but is a splendid book, with a wonderful variety and flow. The logical development into narrative verse, capable of depicting a society rather than just a few images, which was sketched out in a couple of poems in Songs, took this form, of a Bronze Age translation.
Logue dislikes the autobiographical touch; not out of repression, but perhaps out of a dislike for introspection - he prefers action; his irony has a sharp point. The tough and death-touched heroes of War Music are the warrior figures that Thom Gunn never could bring off. Logue hasn't written his life story; it's all there in his style. One has to admire Logue and Barker for writing about sexual immorality in the first person. The reader is left to muse on the similarity between the discretion of the homosexual, in an era of illegality, and the inability of the conventional English academic poet to signal feeling. Both groups edge away from lyric contact towards lessons in civics. The Iliad is built up on androktisiai, the death of heroes in duels: in due form, fulfilling civic obligations, they forfeit biological success. Looking at his ballads about patriotic soldiers dying, such as 'The Song of the Imperial Carrion', one is tempted to link his Iliad to the irony of his modern-day poetry: the bourgeois hero fulfils social obligations, apparently wins, but finds his real wishes flouted. But the connection is strained. It is but a short step from Logue's ironic dialectic around the slip between purpose and outcome to the structurally discrepant montage effect of the 1960s, which also had an anti-bourgeois tendency at its outset. His poems, too, are perhaps closer to Greek anecdotes of the philosophers, as in the well-known book by Diogenes Laertius, than to the knock-down late-night communist cellar cabaret they superficially resemble. If we envisage the sophist as someone who wandered around, gathering audiences at crossroads or in marketplaces by wit and verbal skill, naturally in compressed and salty form, then Logue is a sophist.
The juxtaposition could take three forms: the uncovering of absurd positions (the USA bombs Vietnam to protect it, Wilson's socialist government fights to defend capitalism); the moment of dissociation and drift, letting go of rationality; and the arduous and far-reaching building-up of new poetic associations, replacing collapsed systems with a journey into the unknown. Strangely enough, Logue was closest to the latter in his first published work, the title poem of Wand and Quadrant: a lush narrative poem of constantly shifting levels and times - including the Island of Prospero, characters from the Odyssey, and fortune-telling. He chose instead the sharp lucidity which wins political arguments.

John Arden (1930- ), from Yorkshire, a playwright and recently a novelist, has never quite taken the plunge into fully fledged verse; none the less his plays, apart from passages in formal verse and songs, are written in poetic language - 'the richest in the contemporary theatre', as Martin Seymour-Smith remarks:
'King Johnny of Eskdale indeed! King Curlew of the barren fell. King paddock of the wowsie mosses. Ye squat on your blood-sodden molehill and ye hoot, Johnny; and naebody in Scotland considers ye mair than a wet leaf blawn against the eyeball on a day of September wind.' ('Armstrong's Last Goodnight'.) Immediately, the concept of theatre seems wholly superior to that of personal poetry: as characters are externalised, forced to interact, multiple voices are heard, events are followed through time and forced to rise to crises, the author is forced to create tangible, autonomous agents outside his own personality. Personal, autobiographical poetry could give a convincing and exciting account of existence, but so rarely does it have any drama, so rarely does the poet have the brains to concentrate on a turning-point or create any uncertainty. The convention of the single speaking voice flattens everything, as it is so hard to convey any situation through one person's eyes. Narration is always less interesting than dialogue. Perhaps the escape into truth we are all looking for lies simply in reducing the protagonist from a total environment to a character who has to move through external space and relate to other, autonomous people: entering the condition of drama. It's not hard to explain why Arden wasn't interested in being a poet.
Arden has been clearly more successful than any contemporary poet, perhaps excepting David Jones, at dealing with history; poets in a lyric tradition, which they are deeply inhibited about breaking out of, may wish to talk about history, but they end up presenting dry conclusions rather than narrating a series of events, round and uncertain. Black Torch (by Barry MacSweeney) is the most significant exception, and even that has remained incomplete. The Island of the Mighty, written with Margaretta D'Arcy, is an account of Arthurian Britain (the title is a mediaeval Welsh kenning for 'Britain', Ynys y kedyrdon), suffering from incongruity and a lack of poetic high points, but still a remarkable depiction on a broad canvas of themes (to do with Britain in a stage of primitivism) which have never worked on a small canvas. Recently (1988) D'Arcy and he have written at epic length about the Nicaean Council and the formation of an official Christian creed. Rather than rail about the State, Arden has covered defined steps in its evolution: Island of the Mighty about the arrival of the Saxons and the drawing of the Saxon-Celt frontier, The Workhouse Donkey about local politics, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance about imperialism, Armstrong's Last Goodnight about the struggle of the Crown against militarily expert feudal nobles.
Arden's characters pursue self-interest, checked by the cunning agency of the other characters; this uncertainty and motivation give the plays their interest. So often personal poetry has neither motivation nor uncertainty, hoping by this vacuity to be ingenuous and attractive. How do you write about politics without writing about self-interest? The poetic fondness for delicate, static images, in the Imagist tradition, is perhaps a guarantee of inauthenticity, eliminating any kind of engagement with social processes as the poet turns aside into a moment of unruffled sensitivity.
Arden's plays are not great poetry, partly because the functional members of interaction and plot exegesis are so visible all the time. They don't transcend the best poetry of their time. The faculty which makes language into an adornment is no doubt related to the obstinacy which confines poetry to a single voice, and prevents expansion into a social scene. His awareness of the limitations, in the current climate, of poetic drama, is reflected in his choice of two sixteenth-century poets, Skelton and David Lyndsay, as subjects for plays: poetry at that time was groping around, unfinished, inept, overreaching itself, but full of possibilities; Arden hopes that contemporary poetry can reach its new age by experimenting, in spite of likely failure. He typically chooses eras of change, when the value of people's actions and words is uncertain; this supplies the drama and points up the deadening effect of the lyric poet's need for certainty, assuring us both that he is emotionally pure (and unambivalent) and that he is in undisputed control of the poem, by means of 'technique'. Arden has denounced attachment to technique in favour of emotional commitment and experiment. This is the New Left attack on fixed procedures again; perhaps British actors and directors are sufficiently skilled not to need to start from zero, but I would never say this about British poets.
The point at which I give up abusing poetry for not being drama is the importance of individual expression and introspection within drama. These supply the high points of a play, although they need not be verbal in nature; drama cannot scale the heights without passages of personal inner experience and revelation. The reason why Arden is so much better than other British playwrights has to do with his language, by which his characters externalise themselves:

'Lady. There is in me ane knowledge, potent, secret,
That I can set to rin ane sure concourse
Of bodily and ghaistly strength bet with the blood
Of me and of the starkest man alive. My speed
Hangs twin with yours; and starts ane double flood:
Will you with me initiate the deed
And saturatit consequence thereof - ?
Crack aff with your great club
The barrel-hoops of love
And let it pour
Like the enchantit quern that boils red-herring broo
Until it gars upswim the goodman's table and his door
While all his house and yard and street
Swill reeken, greasy, het, oer-drownit sax-foot fou-
Gilnockie. Red-herring broo -
Lady. In the pot. On the fire. All the warm sliden fishes, Johnny, out of the deep of the sea, guttit and filletit and well-rubbit with sharp onion and the rasp of black pepper...'
(Armstrong's Last Goodnight) and clearly its peculiar virtues could be developed more fully off stage, in a poem. But on stage, we see the necessity of the emotion, we have all the information needed, we have the other people to whom emotion inevitably refers, we have the pressure of events forcing the character to feel and speak: how often does a poem attain this clarity and urgency?

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