Sunday, 13 December 2015

Notes around ‘A Poetry Boom’

This is a book about poetry 1990-2010 which I swore not to write but which began in 2011, while I was living temporarily in Germany, and which today (December 2013) is finished, as I struggle to push errant sentences into place and find points made twice. It is coming out from shearsman in 2015 we hope. It was called “sugar rush ghost town” at one point, and then “partially coded sand“. The subtitle “shocked grains from a poetry boom” refers to the ‘boom’ as a crash through a sound barrier whose waves produce shocked quartz in the sand we are looking at. The ‘shifting sands’ part is an excuse for making a map that doesn’t work 3 weeks later. I understand the book has now been published (update 11/12/15). You can get it through the Shearsman website.

After writing a series of seven books about poetry 1960-97 it is almost unbelievable that I would start on something like this. The ’partially coded’ bit expresses just how thin the coverage of a huge raft of poets is, how tentative the conclusions. Yet I was so deeply involved in poetry as it was happening in these years. Someone looked at the quantity of poetry books being published in 1989, reckoned it was 1300 for that year, and speculated that this meant 5,000 poets at work producing poetry that was ”fit to be published”. A documented figure for 1999 is 2700 poetry books. This would mean 8100 books over 3 years. I suspect this means 10,000 poets at work producing poetry that was ”fit to be published”. Actually I think that figure is on the low side. Obviously you can’t do an “overview” of a field that big. So this isn’t an overview.

We were sitting on the Sun Terrace outside a Nottingham pub which happens to be the nearest one to the office where I work. Inspired by Tim Healey’s wonderful book The World’s worst movies, I had asked my companions, ex-colleagues, people of taste and discretion, what was the worst film they’d ever seen. Simon re-jigged this to the world’s most overrated movie and came up with ‘Citizen Kane’. Godfrey said also that Kane was ‘too long’. I got the feeling he’d never watched it all the way through, and was wishing it had come in 25-minute episodes. Godfrey also came up with a defence of ‘In Like Flint’, brilliantly written off by Healey, which I had discovered a copy of in a collection of DVDs I had mysteriously come by and actually watched. This is truly a terrible film. Godfrey claimed it was a spoof. No. It’s just a bad film with a lot of fantasy poured over a lot of unimaginative derivation from other spy films. So, without being distracted from my beer, my conclusion was that the party didn’t like 'Citizen Kane' and did like 'In like Flint'. This is the ground underlying Poetry Boom: it’s all based on my aesthetic opinions and the person reading it may derive no benefit because they didn’t follow Kane and really enjoyed 'In Like Flint'. There are hundreds of poets I’ve left out because they aren’t good enough. But maybe they are better than ‘In Like Flint’.

Faking it. I draw extensively on Barker and Taylor's great book Faking It but did not mention its main point, which is that the search for authenticity has privileged a relationship of music to community, then rigidly defined community as ethnic, and so attributed to music the quality of being Black or White which has actually led to segregation in terms of radio stations, charts, concert venues, and marketing. If segregation is bad in America's society in general, it must be bad in music. An original polarity of musical customs between Black and White Americans was contradicted by a much more blurred daily reality which Barker and Taylor describe at length. If cultural purity means segregation, its assumptions have to be challenged at every step.

I wrote some chapters which had to be omitted :
.-. Competitive language games
-. critique of the family: the family as ideology
-. Poetry and Science (Prynne and Fisher)
-. the Folk strand in poetry.
-. Inside the Periphery (Scotland and Wales)

This era of poetry was my era, the one my career went through its cycle in. This accounts (partly) for the difficulty of putting into words what really took place in it. I wrote four successive surveys of 'new poetry' from 1990 on. One was reprinted in my book  Failure of Conservatism. This one was originally the introduction to an issue of 'new poets' in Angel Exhaust, in 1995. In 1995 I was only aware of one sector of new poetry, so later I wasn't really happy with that as a survey. So a return to that stretch of time was likely. As you live through an era, your state of mind is dominated by the poetry from the immediately previous era, which you’ve absorbed and which is flowing through your veins in a mighty rush. A second survey was collected in  my book The Council of Heresy (pp.154-73 and 230-53). The third was 'Hillbilly Fever' (see below). The fourth is 'Poetry Boom'.

Sugar Rush. The sugar rush phrase refers to the poetry boom which began around 1994 and which has possibly not stopped. The 'sugar rush' concept is a modification of an earlier theme in a long piece I wrote in 2001 and which was published in 'Terrible Work' on-line. That essay (13,000 words of it) was called 'Hillbilly Fever' and in it I reacted to the 'second naivety' of several poets who were educated but wanted to conquer subjectivity as well by talking about Patsy Montana and 'I wanna be a cowboy's sweetheart'. I thought that, if you wanted to be successfully naive, you had to take on country and western and win. Also, I was a bit irritated by poets writing shallow poetry but expecting you to be impressed anyway because they had gone to an elite university. If a pop song has to charm you, then a naive poem has to charm you too, and if it doesn't it is no good the poet handing out a bibliography about the Learned Naive. The poetry I was reviewing wasn't especially good. When I came to design a book about 'the generation since 1990' I looked at 'Hillbilly Fever' and scrapped it because it wasn't about the vital new poetry. 'Coded Sand' is still about the Second Naivety and poetry being like pop music, but it represents an advance. Actually, I recycled about 4000 words of 'Hillbilly' here and there. When I read Faking It I was fascinated & it could be that I recognised in their praise of 'Sugar Sugar' by The Archies a taste of me pointing to 'I want to be a cowboy's sweetheart'.
There is a line in an Amy De'Ath poem ''Now I'm real nakedness some kind of hay bale girl a goofball' - the 'hay bale' seems to match up with Patsy Montana. Coincidence?
The theme can be explained via a book title, 'the goddess in the kitchen'. You can't be a goddess in the kitchen, or in the sitting room. Or a god. I think the 'potential scope' of poetry has vastly increased, not that people are getting more intelligent but that the sources of information are so much richer and more voluminous. The human personality is not getting more complicated. Because poetry is not a form of scholarship, news media, government social research, financial reports database, etc., it hangs on to its archaic human feelings, reaches a limit of complexity - and bursts. It sinks like the sun and then rises again - restored but extremely simple. It can’t be deified. I can see that poetry does draw on 'people with beautiful personalities', there is a 'line' which follows a curve of beautiful behaviour in the way that a painter might travel to stay in beautiful mountains. This is not especially prominent in the published landscape. Conversely you have poetry about people with terrible 'oversize' personality problems, a la Anne Sexton, but that isn't really centre stage either. No, the personality has not become more complex and poetry is bound to the personality, and cannot sustain a mismatch between the language it uses and the events and the personalities it is describing. Poetry used to describe gods & goddesses, via mythology, but that isn't a normal part of the game as it is now played. So no 'gods in the bedroom' 'goddess in the dining room'. Poetry can however succeed in recapturing the naive and lyrical - the Second Naivety. Creating a 'sugar rush'. This brings two structural problems. First, that it elides the 'defensive gap' between poetry and popular song, which is exceptionally strong in our culture and well able to crush 'musicless' poetry and consign it to the past. Secondly, the 'alliance' between poetry and quite complicated sets of information related to politics, which it wants to weave into its discourse. I said 'problems', these are things which don't prevent poetry from being written but which pose a threat past which poetic thought has to go to find its solutions.

The 'partially coded' project may have started when I was looking at the Chicago Review issue on new British poets in 2007, which seemed to restrict the new generation to four people. I was a bit irked by this although I also couldn't name a large number of poets who had made debuts shortly before 2007, so the book happened when I had located the poets. It may alternatively have started when Keston Sutherland asked me to write something about 'poetry since 2000' for a project which never came to anything, I never heard any more about it. This was in 2010 possibly. Then as time went by the 1997 end point came to seem more and more old and frustrating. So there was a sort of 'dull pain' for that terrain which I hadn't covered. This induced me, after many years, to do some work to fill in the missing terrain. Having written the book I could see that the terrain still wasn't filled in. An American editor produced an issue of his magazine ‘Pilot’ which included 17 young British poets and which I think was a response to the Chicago Review thing and its premature restriction. I couldn’t get hold of this, still haven’t seen it.

So you have 2700 titles come out in one year. Maybe the critics didn't read all those titles. Surprise. You have to posit a starting line where the good stuff is where you aren't looking for it and you are looking in the wrong place. The policy of following certain publishers and magazines and listening to certain people who are 'insiders' may not work. So would you have to read all 2700 titles? To put it another way: you can't judge the books you haven't read. The map may not be there.
It would be great if there were a cadre of poetry connoisseurs who read through all those books, found the good ones, transmitted the information to alert colleagues, and the result were a body of aesthetic knowledge which would name the good books and which would be available to me. But this seems idealistic. There is a 'knowledge distribution network' but its defects are obvious to all.
Less emphasis this time on ranking good and bad, more on reproducing the conversation around poetry as a way of getting the reader close to the linguistic world that poetry happens in.

Kevin Nolan wrote to me about Andrew Jordan:
>>Andrew, not at all, I really did have had to go and see […] on the 27th and I never managed to get back inside your time envelope. Also, the constant fag smoke really got to me, [...], but, even so, sorry to miss you.

That Jordan piece is good, full of demanding equivocations, for surely things really are as bad as he imagines, and he is not paying us back with the sour trickery, say, of [...], or the right-on low mindedness of [...]? I cite these two obvious points of referral just to remind myself how one-sided the debates are:  you would agree, I think and I liked your intro matter for the comic depth of its concern for local and even factional sectaries beyond the pale of identity-management. I think more of the book than you simply because of its will to stand up to the force of its own pessimism, in this a kind of complement to the really negational horror cinema of the 1960s: scream and scream again? But your Marstonian diagnosis of malcontentedness has some truth: there is something Jacobean in this kind of dark rhetoric, a deliberately premodern invocation of the muses of dread which does apply to Sinclair for confirmation but transcends him by seeing death as actual extinction and murder, not merely a Travelodge on the Spirit Path to literary celebrity. ((Some of Jordan reminds me of the dark side of you, but we can chat about all that later.). I owe you the proofs of Filament and more again, so I will write back soonest.<<

Robert Archambeau released on his blog part of a letter to him from Andrea Brady:

>>Throughout the time I did spend in Cambridge I felt distinctly female and distinctly American. I guess it was no accident that I ended up writing a chapter of my thesis on the way that 17th century literary coteries preserved the authority of patriarchal poets through agonistic self-definition and fantasies of all-male reproduction. But I didn’t see the resemblance at the time.<<

This isn't really my story but I thought I should quote it in case you haven't seen it.

The book is about a poetry boom but I don’t explain why this boom happened. I didn’t research this, but why was it? The constant increase in the number of graduates is surely part of it, and if I could give only one cause that would be it. There must be other reasons. I guess that there has been a decrease in dictatorship. Where you used, say between 1940 and 1980, to have people willing to say “there is only one kind of poetry that matters and it is written by people who have been my personal friends for 30 years”, the cultural managers today are only going to admit to pluralism. The same goes for the Marxist authorities who would tell you that all bourgeois art, which means art touched in any way by bourgeois mentality, is fundamentally bad and corrupt. I suspect this is a side-effect of the huge growth in the numbers of the educated - it has eroded the belief in Experts - but then there may well be a whole raft of reasons.
I have vivid memories of the humiliation aspect of getting into poetry - the ‘evil teacher’ figures who would tell you that there’s only one way of doing things and you have no idea what it is. As indicated, I associate this both with the conservative authoritarian figures like Geoffrey Grigson and Ian Hamilton but also with people who thought there was a modernist/Marxist franchise and they owned it. However vivid the memories, they aren’t time-stamped enough for me to work out when this peculiarly vile way of behaving stopped. It does seem to be an artefact of restricted consumption - you start with the idea that ‘in order for me to win everyone else has to lose’ and go on from that to ‘there is a unique winning position and I know what it is’. There is an idea, quoted here from the archaeologist Richard Bradley: “the special character of prestige items is safeguarded by regular destruction“. (I think Bradley was quoting from an anthropologist named Meillassoux who had observed this when looking at ‘bride-wealth’ in West Africa.) There would be a symmetry between a social order in which 2% of people are the apex, from all points of view, and an artistic order with a prestige art which only applied to a tiny range of situations, which is demarcated from everyday language, which is exercised only by a few artists, and where ‘unauthorised’ artists are severely reproved and repressed.

In the model, it becomes possible for many people to be significant poets in the course of events that demolish the social ‘apex’ and lead to a much flatter social structure. Once people are generally aware that ‘culture flows in every direction’, the geometry changes and there is no niche that can be called Winning and the basis for putting everyone down vanishes. If your social role is to give prestige artefacts the stamp of Authentication, it is hard to accept that this authentication is a mirage and cultural creativity is everywhere. I think the flood of new graduates dissolved the elitist position - the function of de-Authentication which had worked so well for so many centuries fought its last stand and its curses lost their power to hurt. There was a paradoxical stage where the managers of prestige intensified their claims to have the monopoly of cultural assignment at the very moment when more and more people were losing faith in them. The old-style managers made terrible mistakes of artistic judgement and became incompetent and ridiculous partly because they rejected the new poetry in the interests of preserving their own central/authoritative position.
But… all that rubbish stopped. It became safer to write poetry. The rate of publication almost doubled in the Nineties - I hope someone else will research why this happened, and possibly also check the figures and see if they are counting something real.
I think the limit of this explanatory model is that the turning of prestige from a crystal phial held inside a fortress guarded by Geoffrey Grigson with a Bren gun into ‘a delta with hundreds of channels covering a huge area’ is so complete, the delta is so much where we live, that it is hard to think back to when things were different. The struggle to prevent it used Auden as a key symbol - conservative critics refused to read poets younger than Auden because they knew that would spoil the game. Conversely, Auden stood for poetry which was read by people outside the committed ‘poetry world’. Auden was not necessarily a cultural conservative himself. One more point - in the new world it is impossible to WIN in the sense of reaching the apex where the truly influential hang out, because there is no apex any more. Some groups on the scene may feel a hankering for this situation but it is impossible to bring it back (even by symbolic destruction of everyone else’s prestige items).
The flattening may have been identical with the process by which the number of university graduates rose from less than 40,000 to millions. As I write I hear that there are two million students in the country. We could also describe this process as ‘the apex growing by a factor of 400 or 500’ rather than as ‘the apex disappearing’.

When the ‘province of the culturally active” only included a few thousand people, the wish to be an insider was mighty. People assimilated to the central realm of culture, acquired the right accent, and didn’t want to be neglected and unfashionable. So there was a style of each era, roughly one per decade (for some reason). This really came to an end in the 1980s, and problems with describing ‘style history’ from that point on are due to the size of the elite. You have a mass elite, roughly. It is too big for one sense of poetic style to sweep the board - there are always a dozen contenders as central style. But you have clusters, and you have a time line of change within those clusters - separately. So you have “postmodernism” and there really are poets who fit the concept “postmodern” - but out of 12,000 poets (! whatever the actual count is) only a small number are writing in such a “post-modern” mode. So calling the whole era post-modern is blatantly inaccurate.
As the book says, a re-examination of the evidence finds that even the 1950s didn’t have one single style. At least three were in contention, and commentators at the time record that. But people were arguing about an “appointment to office” of a dominant “style of our time”, so there is an office of Caesar even if four people have been acclaimed Caesars in different provinces; and after about 1983 (??) people don’t do that any more.
You definitely have post-modern poets in 1983, and it seems fairly new then. But does that mean you have had 30 years of Postmodern Reign ever since then? That isn’t plausible either. But we don’t have a theologian of the postmodern telling us that it began ebbing away in (say) 1995. No, the expectation is that you throw away the rules of stylistic research in order to fall down in front of it. This is silly.

The book was finished but had to be prised open and reworked after I read Nathan Hamilton’s anthology Dear World, which was obviously very important.


Sugar sugar. When I talk about ‘Sugar Sugar’, a huge 1969 hit for The Archies which was a symbol at the time of banality and phoniness, I describe it wrongly. I hadn’t heard it for 40 years. The point is that I could still remember it, after 40 years, and that this is a sign of how strong it was as a nagging pop song. I describe my memory with a marimba that isn’t there. (It’s an organ with a woody tone played staccato.) During the write-up I chatted to my colleague Lance, who is maybe four years younger than me. He could remember 1969 and told me that ‘Sugar sugar’ was the first record he remembered enjoying and looking out for. So he was nine - ‘Sugar sugar’ was possibly aimed at pre-teens rather than teens, and maybe this is part of how it came to be number One for six weeks and yet all the ‘talk’ about it was how bad it was. Somebody liked it, didn’t they. There was that stretch emerging between increasingly sophisticated and album-oriented music at the top end and music for people aged nine to fourteen at the ‘bottom end’, and those markets were splitting from each other.

Sampson. Fiona Sampson has published a book called ’Beyond the Lyric’ (2012) which is effectively a study of poetry since 1990, even if not labelled as that. I didn’t write a detailed response to it and I am struggling to explain why. I think where Fiona is coming from is a wish not to offend anybody. Part of this is a wish for ‘propriety of scale’, so that no-one gets praised excessively. In the upshot no-one gets much praise. It is like a bird’s eye view which gets everyone in the correct proportions but diminishes everything through distance. Then, I find her classifications unusable. It may be that hundreds of different ways of grouping poets are equally effective, and that I am buried inside my personal one, which is after all how I retrieve knowledge every day. All the same I found her grouping instantly forgettable and non-illuminating. Also, it doesn’t tie on to the debates about form which poets enter into - it doesn’t connect with the conversation in bars full of poets. Sampson never mentions any comments by poets about the choices they make and the stylistic narratives they identify with. This is a kind of ultra-fairness - but it disconnects the book from its subject matter. I was very interested in chronology and in finding what was present in 2010 which wasn’t there in 1990 - or which had sunk and disappeared between 1990 and 2010. Sampson’s book has no notion of time at all. I think the background is fear of the utterance YOU’RE OUT OF DATE - something which would demolish the building and have hundreds of poets run round in circles screaming. Sampson is determined to avoid any disagreements. The book ends up giving the impression that time is not passing at all and that the scene is exactly how it was in 1965. This is surely not true. And a lot of poets are conservative, slow, and out of date. This feeds back into the classification problem - evidently being ‘modern’, and the 50 stages of being modern over the last 50 years, are vital to classifying styles, and everyone talks in terms of them. Sampson says that political poetry is very rare - this is palpably untrue; the comment means something like “I dislike political poetry so I can ignore it”, poets’ wishes about how society ought to work are tactfully dragged out of the picture - and this is very similar to dragging poets’ wishes about how poetry ought to work out of the picture, which is something else Sampson seems to be doing. Any argument about poetry puts many many poets in a bad light - so if you shut out of camera view all the arguments people have had over 30 years or so, you are apparently saving people pain - but lowering awareness to a very dim level. By trying so hard to be fair to everyone, Sampson has given away the possibility of giving cogent or satisfying descriptions.
However - FS mentions possibly 100 poets and if you went off and and read all those poets you wouldn’t do too badly. Also I see no wrong judgements about the poets she discusses. I just couldn’t build on what she wrote.

Todd Swift is apparently editing a book for Eyewear which will describe British poetry since 1999 - we can hope that covers my deficiencies. It may also come out in 2015.

Ghost town. After the ‘sugar rush’, the ghost town. The ‘ghost town’ part is because the book is written as a retrospect. It includes the 1990s, when I was so involved in the poetry scene and when so many things were happening. The sites of that time are deserted. Everything has moved on. It is possible to think about what happened because the crush of information has faded away: both memory and abstraction are possible. There is a line where understanding stops: maybe 15 years before today, maybe ten.

I include a chapter on ‘The Maltese Falcon‘. This is odd. It isn’t even a poem. Because poetry deals so much with the individual, it doesn’t build complexes of relations between several individuals which allow the spectator to project their feelings, as they do with the Falcon. The elusive and receding space is flattened, we are very close to one person - one face. I couldn’t find modern poetry which allows discussion of modern politics. The possibility has slipped away. The poems are too much about the projection of a personality. Poets are hyper-aware of sexual politics and so forth. They don’t allow a movement between guilt and innocence. Interesting write-ups of that movement have to use something else - films for example. The poets are all hyper-aware of the Police Departments of Theory and sedulously avoid topics that might be subject to re-analysis by tough Theory Cops. This is why we have to bring in a film to explain the arguments.
Poetry is acutely limited by anxiety about being exposed to ethical and social critique. The poetry we get is only what’s left over once inhibitions have put the raw material through twenty committee meetings.

Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Her look of startled innocence - red hair, blue eyes, schoolgirl complexion - when Sam Spade makes her admit that she shot Miles Archer is emblematic for the reaction of the lyric poet when told that all that critique of ideology and hidden labyrinths of deceit in texts applies to Them. You can’t mean Me?
If you decide that O’Shaughnessy was innocent then maybe lyric poets are too. So that Georg Lukacs shot Miles Archer. I’ve read the book (The Maltese Falcon) and I don’t believe it. Dashiel Hammett is disguising the real story. He never even mentions Lukacs. Why not?

The problem with Theory is this. Readers are often not convinced by poems. Often poems fall apart when they make a false move. The whole history of modern poetry is of a mass audience sheering away and not being interested. There are a million ways of screwing up the poem. An explanation for this is vital. But Theory provides a set of wrong explanations. It is not based on actual audience reactions. It doesn’t even think they are important.

The concept of ‘indeterminacy’ in poetry has to be connected back to the primal moment of reduction: poetry is not ambiguous the way a narrative with several characters, like the Falcon, is. The Falcon is a mystery story, it’s all about ambiguity. So poetry restores a missing indeterminacy in different ways.

Good poets encountered since I closed the book off: Peter Davidson, Toby Martinez de las Rivas, Dorothy Lehane, Maria Jastrzebska, Nathan Thompson.

Spenser. In the book, I attribute the “View of the Present State of Ireland” to Edmund Spenser. Since closing the book, I have read Bruce Lenman’s ‘England’s Colonial Wars 1550-1688’ which discusses the wars in Ireland and says that the View, although published under Spenser’s name (almost 40 years after his death) was not in fact by Spenser. So we have to give this up. However, Spenser did live in Ireland for many years and did profit from imperialism by becoming owner of an estate in the forfeited and cleared province of Munster. More significantly, he was writing propaganda for Elizabeth and it was under her aegis that terrible misgovernment occurred in Ireland. All these situations ask for further analysis, more dragging in of awkward facts and unnoticed witnesses. What is the link between the Irish wars and Elizabethan court poetry?

Am spending Sunday morning checking the details in the catalogue of poets. This is where mistakes are likely to be concentrated. Exhaustion after two hours. I need a coffee. I change the date on ‘How to make millions’ by Emily Critchley from 2005, as the credits in her first book say this pamphlet was published in 2004. Later, while ransacking the shelves for something else, I find the original pamphlet and the flyleaf says it was published in 2005. Right first time. Change the date back. This could go on for ever. Interesting how many of the books I want to list aren’t in the British Library catalogue. Spent 4 ½ hours just checking dates and titles. I think the conclusion is that copy-typing numbers is extremely boring.

The British Film Institute have issued Chris Welsby’s films on DVD: British Artists’ Films, Chris Welsby. 

Thursday, 10 December 2015

A note on Anthony Conran (1931-2013) 

(Later books credited to Tony Conran.) He is such a fluent and brilliant poet, but he can foresee difficulties too cleverly, and the poems lack depth, conflict, self-contradiction, in some way. Does a poem need to have internal tension and twist? I can’t see why. I don’t think I’ve read all his books. I thought the Formal Poems (1960) were unsatisfactory, and Castles (1993) also didn’t work out. But there is also A Gwynedd Symphony (1996). Life Fund (1979) may be the best. It reminds me of Edwin Morgan. It has particular poems that could be anthologised; the “poems for paintings on silk” are good.
Conran has an Irish name and was partly Welsh by “origins”, if we care about those, but he grew up in Wales. Conran published an essay about Welsh civilisation (Anglo-Welsh Review, number 58) which defines it as a separate organism from Western Europe (that is - before the English conquest), and says that modern Wales is a survival of that civilisation. He was perpetually writing about Wales as a figure, an agent, capable of moving and having a biography; his poetry adheres to this as a maximum (he has no interest in Britain or Europe) and a minimum - he is always writing about Wales as a whole, and his poems all cohere in that urgent project. This 1977 essay shows the influence of Toynbee (who described “an Abortive Far Western Christian Civilisation”) on his thought; he acquired his ideas rather early in life, it seems, and Toynbee, Graves, and Buber gave him much of his framework. The Welsh mythical figures he was constantly writing about serve as ideals which show this Far Western Civilisation but are deployed to rebuke Welsh people for failing to live up to them as ideals. The sociological basis for this is weak.
He was a career nationalist, for want of a better word, a full-time one. The story of his poems is therefore the story of the fate of Wales - a great deal of frustration with the language fading year by year, but also a success story as originally ridiculed ideas came to be accepted by a large proportion of the population. His understanding of the nature of Wales grew ever more precise - simultaneously an increasing knowledge of what was going wrong and an intellectual victory. He was acutely aware of the failings of nationalism as doctrine and a logical development would have been into a critic of nationalism. He remained a nationalist true believer. He didn’t see the poems as solutions because the only real problem was how to liberate Wales.
A basic step in his poetry is the evocation of a mythical realm. He was very excited by the heroic narrative of Wales, myths about gods or about historical figures (prior to the loss of independence) projected to super-human scale. An influence on this may have been Graves’ The White Goddess, which takes place on the mythical level. Ken Etheridge’s 1943 book already includes a number of mythical poems about Welsh legends. There were absolutely radical problems with this manner of writing. An improvement was to reduce the vagueness by using a laconic style full of physical details, which after all attacked one of the main problems with the style that was drunk on mythology. So -

In the untrodden light
Come travellers
Pilgrims or refugees.

The young ones
Crowd their balconies
At the next cold
Draggle the heart.

Refugee camp -
Or a quality of light
Drawing us inward…

A problem with the poems is the exclusion of process from the poem by the laconic style and its typically short lines. The lineation is odd - it lacks fluency although its terseness also seems to possess authority. However, it also punctured the exalted and elusive quality of the myths - the primary attraction. Both of these styles were deeply flawed and likely to produce unconvincing poems. However, the contrast between them produced a kind of dialectic. This would produce new combinations all the time and some of these combinations would be good poems, which also had this quality of internal tension - a way of expressing the tension of historical situations, the absence of structure which allows for freedom and for acts of consciousness.
A key thing to explain is how Conran was a fluent writer, who could write hundreds of poems and not be bothered with them later, and also use this anti-fluent, even grudging, style of writing. I liked this poem about Euros Bowen:

A thick tapering trumpet,
A rhizome of bronze
In a dark forge moulded and twisted
In spiralling rounds.

A wide bloom opens for the root -
A crater of red
Like a lake of smouldering molten stone
Erupts from its bed -
(“To ask for a Bugle”, 1969)

Conran issued a book called “formal poems” (1958), which was pretty much juvenilia. A collected poems 1951-67 was published in 1974. There is a standard Anglo-Welsh poem which Conran never wrote at all, being original from the start. He took The White Goddess and developed a notion of poems based on social exchanges - gifts, marriages, etc., which would be raised to ceremonial level by the largesse of poetry. This was also a way of incorporating the pre-modern Welsh poetry, which had very frequently dealt with such moments- albeit in land-owning families. His selected poems of 2006 (The Shape of my Country) eliminate these poems almost entirely. However, some of these poems are picked up and show his later mature style in which events of history are used as a way of commenting on and staging events of the immediate present, that is in Wales. Despite the use of myth, Conran is a serious thinker: his observation of current events is very acute, he is capable of original thought about politics and that is the basis for writing serious poetry about politics. In fact, there is a tension between the information which this acuity feeds back to his brain and the objects of poetry. It is as if that acuity and his long study of events cut a way out of the poetic and nationalist and mythological presuppositions which Conran fastened onto as a teenager or young adult. Conran has done the work of understanding social processes but the payoff is missed because the information is too complex for the design of the poem he is prepared to write. An exit into large forms was strongly indicated for him. This would for most writers also be the signal for the exit from poetry into prose. In fact, Conran was much better as a prose writer, and his essays on Anglo-Welsh poetry are among the most enlightening for the foreigner. I have to say that his laconic statements have the force of truth, they point to a knowledge won by critical thought which he genuinely had won and could draw on. The selected poems (of some 120 pages) are not completely satisfactory as a career survey - it is a cleverly designed and coherent book, but the individual volumes, something over 800 pages in all, tell a more complicated story. (Did I count 800? No, but he wrote a lot of poems.)
‘A meritocracy’ is from a 1960 sequence called ‘Invocation of Angels’:

An aristocracy of intellect
Could come - has come already
In a few displaced souls
From the lost generations.

Like all aristocracies
That of the intellect
Is a matter of breeding.

This has a theme described in his notes: “Iaith (language) rather than gwlad has been the pre-occupation of both the Welsh intelligentsias at least since the 1970s. The result, the short term, has spelt some economic disadvantage for the English monoglot majority (and consequent resentment) because the new, bilingual Wales requires bilingual officers; but its long-term effects are likely to be disastrous for both communities.” The lucidity of the prose (written in 2004) reveals that Conran had done the studying and the thinking. The poem is not exciting because its theme is depressing. He rarely found optimistic subjects in Welsh politics. (Gwlad is the Land.)

“The Sisters” is from 1993:

Both sisters had their courts. Clients gathered,
Friends, conspirators, those with a phrase to offer

Or a kindness, warmth or wildness, way of the world.
The magic of their Welshness was Mediterranean,

Bright as seagulls. Lamplit palazzos
Where the twist and savour of a good story was king.

A taste of Gwales. The singing of Rhiannon’s birds.
The Assembly of the Head these umpteen years.

But in Non’s time, the door swung open, and she knew it.
Her court was at the rainbow’s end,

Time-bound. Men of action, or men hesitant
To act. Women poised in the rigmaroles of doubt.

Time. Time. And the great space beyond. The shuffling
Seas sweeping you out through Aber Henfelin

To the gannet ways, the shark roads beyond Cape Clear.

The introduction of figures from the Mabinogion is typical. (Opening the door brought paradise, on Gwales, to an end.) The style shows how many mediaeval Welsh poems he had read, it is genuinely un-English. Conran was not a Welsh speaker but had a passionate interest in the classical Welsh poetic forms and worked out a way of translating them. The Penguin Book of Welsh Verse (1967) consists wholly of his translations - the best ever, so far as I can see. Gwyn Williams also had that ability.

This note is a back-up to the “shopping list” of books of poetry 1960-97 which did not include a title of Conran’s. Over twenty years I have been pondering, at least intermittently, why I didn’t like his poetry enough and whether I should include one of his books. They were hard to find. Blodeuwedd (1988). All Hallows (1995). What Brings you Here So Late (2008) are three I haven’t read. I will read them, it’s just a question of finding copies.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

The triumph of depth of field: Kathleen Nott

(another forgotten mid-century poet)
After completing a work on British poetry 1960-97 I was concerned at the small number of women poets described in it and began, slowly, to read some forgotten women poets of mid-century. I thought it might be possible to recuperate some of them. This is also part of a spare-time project to find any good poetry that was written in the conservative and family-oriented decade of the 1950s. Kathleen Nott is someone I got around to late.

Poems from the North
Nott (1905-99) seems to have published four books of poetry: Landscapes And Departures (1947), Poems from the North (1956), Creatures and Emblems (1960) and Elegies and Other Poems (1981). The 'north' is Sweden, where she was living at the time (and about which she wrote a travel book). She is missing from just about all the sites (anthologies and histories) which legitimised poets of that time. An exception is one of the British Council pamphlets on poetry. Also, I notice that North was a Poetry Book Society recommendation. I should say at once that the poetry in North is remarkable and the gap in public recognition is painful. This is the main fact in the story.

Look at this:

There are no tall engines standing in the polar North
or none that is ready for use. They are all
sheeted and hooded with the snow: who could discern them
among faceless pines
and blinded fish?
Yet there are things and forms
one would hazard only waiting to be stirred
among this lumber of petrified halls that look
by the light ruined, as if time out of mind
ago, they had lost a valued and antique branching
to this faint modern sky: and these not only
the crashed, spread-eagled and the near-supine
that lie unvisored from the snow.
For though no visible tombs
lie out among the pall'd rocks and no steelmen ever
sprang from old granite, though there has never been
any clangour and the place breeds
nothing but silence, then snow upon the silence
and silence upon the snow, and even the birches
leaped silver from an igneous vein, one can feel how tense
this soundless and Spring-agony might be
to heave, to be wholly altered and removed,
to flutter, though large, and break in through snow
and at last to be seen of eyes, at last, though monstrous or monolithic,
and even though inward darkness be perpetual.
(from 'Absolute Zero')

The most obvious stylistic point dominates the whole passage, that is the length of the continuous blocks of meaning, what I have called metaphorically depth of field: the style demands not only a perceivable object worthy of such intellectual profundity but also a mind with the intensity and detachment and even longing needed to search the perceptible world at such length before breaking off. Every state of thought has an end; where you reach that end is a key to what operations your mind is undertaking. It is therefore a psychological signal, showing the interior of the mind quite clearly; as we enter into the poem we enter into such an interior state, and there we are either happy -or we dislike the poem. Much depends, then, on this depth of visual field – which I find throughout the book.

It is far unlike the momentary glimpses and violent syncopated transition which we associate with modernism (not all modernism). It reminds me of certain poems of Kathleen Raine, where also we find the intellectual intensity is also emotional intensity. Raine's peculiar ideas about the laws governing nature should not distract us from the accuracy of what she says, at many points, about the genesis of form. Nott's poem is not an allegory and to some extent it is exhausted by the depth of its gaze: what we see does not promise another world but, in recompense, it is actually there.

When from a noiseless power of flight,
pinhead, snakeneck, grow single and alight;
from a watch of cold eyes which was taller
than the sun's fire-crawl
upon either port: and on the extinct
grey chimneys of rock, each distinct
meteor startles, with a beating
belly and limp feet, you can hear
over tufts the wind has usurped all year,
shrieks as of winches and cordage.

Or the sea is a waste uncertain age
of volcano fathoms; and the birds flying
sure of their stars, and plying
their ancient trade-routes, carry
year after year their formulary,
dropping on the rocks from the unsealed throat,
what the quick ear has learnt by rote.
What will your vague ear catch? Remote
Bermudas? Paeons or agonies?

Whatever you hear now will be cries
of the salt and pearly dead, by oar
or piston driven once from the shore,
or by the lean-thonged heart within:
the thin-haired women with their thin
tunes, and the bass men black as oaths,
whose love being bitter as hyssop loathes
the kerchief'd hill, the sensual tree,
and seeks the harsh eye of the sea,
and lands as far as time is gone
to tear their churches from dead stone.
(from 'Internecine Love')

(scil. 'paeans') The second half of the book is mainly poems about love and it is not wholly surprising, given the intensity of the gaze shown in the first half, that the object of love turns out to be disappointing, while the intensity of the search gives the poems their emotional reward and a retained promise that emotional intensity is still possible and is the goal to which our faculties are attuned. The development of 'Internecine Love' is not completely clear to me, but the northern sea of the quoted stanzas seems to be a kind of exterior equivalent for a love that did not sustain itself under tests:

Offence of nature and of place
powered these hulks with love and grace
and you in lapping peace will read
what shook these ribs was love indeed [.]

Repeatedly we read of acts of hearing, but none of them seems to be the desired sound; we are left to guess what that is – the music of amorous harmony perhaps. The sea sounds like the North Atlantic, in high latitudes, perhaps between Faeroes and Iceland; but is perhaps not a literal place. It is there as the medium for a journey which is mainly a journey through time. It is there to supply depth of field. 'Pinhead and snakeneck' describes a sea-bird; perhaps it starts as a pinhead, when far away, and increases in apparent size as it descends towards the observer. The chimneys of rock are known in Gaelic as stacs and are offshore islands, such as St Kilda, guarded by high cliffs which are perfect nesting-places for sea-birds. The meteors are birds, again.

One poem, 'Manichee's Black Mass', is unlike the others. It is a political satire on social attitudes towards being Black, racially, equated with a Manichaean view of the world which divides it into light and darkness. It is a remarkable poem. The writer is not consistently interested in unintelligent people and illogical views. The book could not be about them. The book as a whole is a celebration of the intelligence and requires large measures of truth as the air which intelligence must breathe.

The poems are like great waves which have a long fetch, starting far out in the ocean and taking their time; this implies the delay of gratification, or rather succeeds by the depth of involvement and the steadiness of focus which we participate in as we follow the wave onto shore. One of the poems quotes Ugo Foscolo and it may be that the method of constructing very long verse paragraphs was influenced by his example in Le Grazie and Dei sepolcri. Gratification is not an obvious feature of the style. We have to dwell on this briefly because around this point we have to consider how necessary the recuperation of this poetry is. It does not have an aesthetic on the same high level as its intellectual commitment. Its austerity, its lack of simplistic enjoyment of pleasures of love and the countryside, will remind us of other poetry of the 1950s – also out of favour as I write. This poetry does not strive to create a linguistic world; it is not self-serving and does not obviously reach its self-set goals. It is a search for truth, as much in the desolate landscapes of rural Sweden as in the emotional passage of arms between two people, representing each other as accurately as the ego allows. (Nott's marriage ended around this point.) The depth of focus is the reward, at the same time that it takes on so much truth that it drowns elementary emotional states and hopes.

There is a Wikipedia article on Nott and as this points out she wrote a book (1953) attacking the relapse into religion of various modern writers as a betrayal of the demands of the intellect. T.S. Eliot was prominently featured in this. While it is hardly possible to disagree with Nott about Eliot's relapse into monarchism and Anglo-Catholicism, attacking Eliot in the England of the 1950s was a kind of literary suicide, and this on its own possibly explains why her name does not feature in the sites of consecration (for example Penguin anthologies by Allott or Lucie-Smith). The 1950s audience was more likely to feel itself the subject of her attack; it was not composed of intellectuals and had a high percentage of people who were believing Christians (Anglo-Catholic or not). They may have respected her but she made them feel uncomfortable.

The approach by which the search for philosophical truth is also a search for emotional commitment and so a path towards personal happiness has an affinity with the approach of Denise Riley. Well, you couldn’t be D Riley in 1956. It was not part of the dispensation. But the comparison may serve to situate Nott. The intellectual intensity is also emotional intensity and the attempt to find and shed illusion is the process which writes the poem. Again, you can see that this would make some people feel uncomfortable.

Part 2
By this time two more of her books have arrived, after Internet shopping (so there is still one I haven't read). (which actually is just a pamphlet)

The cover of North has a quote from J-P Sartre saying that Nott is the only English Existentialist. I find this suspect (I mean, because it makes her importance conditional on being a reflection of the central luminary which is Sartre himself) but it helps to locate the way in which the publisher felt she could be presented to an audience, and partly also the kind of intellectual who was available in England, in 1956, willing to buy a book which was not Christian, pastoral, or nostalgic. The jacket also says “The verse is less experimental and shows signs of settling into a basic rhythm.” How depressing! The publisher is saying, this is dangerous stuff but it is getting less threatening with time and you can allow it in the house. That is how literary matters work while the Conservative Party is winning a series of elections! The association with Poetry London, which published her first book, may have been a problem; the sleeve of North apologises, twice, for the kind of poem that had appeared in that one. It was Landscapes and Departures, of 1947, and it is not New Romanticism. It really has very little to do with the Forties scene. Nott is a distinctive writer, all the way. It includes the poem ‘The Grass’, 700 lines literally about the species grass (or group of species). This is really a challenge. As a combination of subject matter, length, and the density and precision of style, it is really unlike anything else. We would have to invent a new category at this point. Her way of arguing in verse reminds me slightly of Peter Yates – another Forties poet who, on examination, has nothing in common with the style of the time. Perhaps Spender is a better comparison.

While I think Landscapes is highly finished intellectually, the expressivity is less sure. North is much better as well as being closer to a norm. It is more personal and emotional than the other two books. In Landscapes it is noticeable that the writer is an intellectual, the movement of thought is always of high quality and there are no weak or blurred passages. There is a lingering flavour of social relevance - someone looking at ruined Europe and wondering how bad Mankind can make a good place - but that was not an especially original attitude in 1947 and Nott has mostly developed far on from that, so that the poems do not play a familiar music. One theme of ‘The Grass’ may be that the natural world is going to recover from the war, and sites of devastation will become covered with vegetation before too long. But it also tells a story, in which grass only plays a role. In Landscapes the poet gets completely carried away, and the poems are also more difficult than the ones in North.

I identified the “depth of field” as key to North before I had seen the other two books. Creatures just has less depth of field, it is not really a distinctive feature. ‘The Grass’ at 700 lines has even more depth of field. I am going to quote one poem from Landscapes at length.

The Bat

I weave my world,
by faultless repertory of my votive dances,
weaving my silence with the shine
here where the moon entrances
the sheeted water and dark sheer of larches,
and dive indifferent arches
(after my fleeting guessed
identity) which scallop
night in water at this meeting-place this
frontier of the stone-old with the leaning-green
of soft perennial Spring, the mask-white tryst of
four eternal
swimming-in-moonlight, wild-with-water laughing faces.

And mad with their vicarious love, I soar
to feel the moon with sharpest songs,
like a mad rag-bag lark, and I adore
this world that I have made and locked in mirrors.
and I review the regular glades,
the slender columns
grey, with mist moonlit spray and ebony fountains of the beeches,
and from my height
(flight is my vanity and I shall stoop
to read myself anew purblind in helpless waters)
choose the enchanted kind, the daughters
exalted with their moonfed love whose feet
are lost in trance of grass -
to blow their mouths with hair like filthy wind.

Because this world of yours
I ward, plucking the true one with my delicate monstrous fingers,
and whosoever lingers
on in your vale of bone and stone,
who since with dull and ageing ears,
he hears or thinks he hears
my high cries wince,
will dub me outcast.
But he forgets
that in the carrion world
I am the nightingale,
and how the soft world rots into my dyes,
and he forgets the world of summer singers,
burden of the hot heap,
who by the fragile network of their tiny cries
and all the diaphane of stale,
suckle my maw until the consummation of my winter sleep,
and feed my sacred and invisible art: my art
to build the true, the soft and shadowy counterpart
in death, of this most brimming world.
Ah, springtide of love and mutual
cyclopean spell of moon and ocean,
I mount you, drink you like a potion
strengthening me as I hover, shadowing,
a mock and dingy kestrel,
over the eternal ghosts of youth, the hosts
of pearls of passionate beauty,
 faces, the mirrors of ecstasy of love.

Ah, white entrancement,
up, up,
by silent and devoted dances,
I raise my joy as in a cup,
fed through translucent veins with silver blood
and airy wine, a power
from the curved, tense, divine and shining
nocturne I need, and purpose to destroy,
being loyal to death which lies
in the sprung quicksilver of the broken blood
all over the earth, and in the crass flat eyes
of phosphorescent heads, the sea-weed
severed, clinging the shore-mud
I savour, breath
of sweetest, being most helpless, death:
and then the new
hue and perfume of my secret and
still growing flower of flower of
superdecay of green -
my pride and art, for still unfelt, unseen
my world within your world
grows like an immanence of slime
in cracks of time and space.
and I who feast
my solitary love,
am priest
of all your dying, all the pure
sacrifice, deaths which lean
meaningless across your globe-face; autumn
passion of the clinging vine;
shadow and thirst in the sands;
shadow of the signpost pointing
pointlessly. Larvae of fume of blood
desert your empty deaths, weave with my moonlight,
the outline of your fleshly ghosts,
for a faint heaven within this tapestry of mine.
And I pure spirit of bird
have eaten my flesh to rusty mourning,
disguise to suit
my satiate retirement,
if soon the season and the moon are late
and I decline longthoughted
and shuffle boughs to grow fur-fruit,
and space is shadow and time slow
and moonlight thickens into snow,
and I withdraw huge and naked ears into my sleep,
and in vast vacancies closely cluster,
lacklustre, rustling dry,
to hang head downward,
perfected mirror of myself,
over the snow or sky.

It is night. The moon is shining. A bat is flying above a lake in some park landscape of trees and columns. In the lake, which possibly has stone banks, four lovers are swimming. They are entranced, by each other. It is a romantic landscape in the taste of the 1940s. “Because this world of yours
I ward, plucking the true one with my delicate monstrous fingers,”
: the bat protects the enchanted world in which the four lovers are living as if no other existed. The bat has affinities with death (presumably taken from Gothic poems in the manner of Edward Young about graveyards, ghosts, ruins, and bats). “Blow their mouths“: the bat goes so close to their mouths that the air from its wings blows against the mouths.
“my art
to build the true, the soft and shadowy counterpart
in death, of this most brimming world.” : the bat has some creative power and with it creates a counter-world, ruled by death. The bat here is an artist counterpart, perhaps its extreme sensitivity to sound is like the sensitivity of the poet. A poem a few pages earlier in Landscapes begins with the line ”I am a poet with a special duty towards death”, and the bat could also make this claim.
“and he forgets the world of summer singers,”: these are insects, on whom the bat lives, catching them in flight.
“from the curved, tense, divine and shining
nocturne I need, and purpose to destroy,”: here the bat is speaking again of the ‘nocturne’, the beautiful scene, of the night swimmers in the lake. He purposes to destroy it: attracted to love, he yet is borne up by some counter-principle. The scene is fragile, with its pure and transient feelings; we do not hear how it will end, but some ominous spirit is hovering over it. It is there by enchantment.

“cyclopean spell of moon and ocean“: the setting is cyclopean because it has one eye, that is the moon, the origin of tides.
“in the sprung quicksilver of the broken blood
all over the earth, and in the crass flat eyes
Of phosphorescent heads, the sea-weed
Severed, “: the bat evokes the whole realm of death, at its strongest in the mid-1940s. The heads are those of the drowned, from sunken ships, shining with the light of marine organisms (bioluminescent dinoflagellates, commonly) which cling and shine. The poem may go back to 1944 or 1945; the earth is really covered in broken blood. Its ‘quicksilver’ mirrors the phosphorescence. “am priest
of all your dying”: the bat is now part of a religion of death. There is perhaps an echo of Foscolo’s “Dei sepolcri” here.
“and I decline longthoughted“: the bat, an animal again, slows down, its thoughts take a long time; hibernation is near.
“and shuffle boughs to grow fur-fruit,” it walks along tree-branches and there grows thicker fur.
passion of the clinging vine;”: this is presumably just “the vintage”, a thing which happens to grapes in autumn.
“choose the enchanted kind, the daughters
exalted with their moonfed love whose feet
are lost in trance of grass -
to blow their mouths with hair like filthy wind.”: if we re-read this in the light of later parts of the poem, it seems that the “choosing” means “marking for destruction”. The bat wants the most exalted and passionate women to populate his counter-world. The “choosing” is like an angel of death or a Valkyrie. The mention of hibernation may be a hint that the war is coming to an end, that the appetite for destruction is becoming satiated.

I think this should be the one which represents Nott in anthologies. I have just been writing about Kevin Nolan’s poem about being a bat, some 60 years later. Is there a connection? I would like to think there is an overlap of some kind, one worth diving into the texture of the poems and hypothesising about.

The back jacket of Creatures and Emblems (1960) lists three other books coming out at around the same time - by John Holloway, Peter Redgrove, and Margaret Avison. The description of the Avison book sounds interesting - I think she was Canadian, so that may be why she did not appear in the discourse around and over British poetry. I have not read that volume of John Holloway, but he belonged to the “Formalist” tendency as defined by Eric Homberger. Rather later, he wrote The Landfallers, a good example of Formalist verse, rhyming throughout. Redgrove is the one who really had a career. Nott’s 1960 book clearly belongs within the Formalist category. I must say that it is a disappointment to read after Poems from The North. It is closer to the norms of the era than North, less demanding and less arresting. Nonetheless it includes some imposing poems. The “creatures” part refers to some poems about animals - for example a long poem about the arrested sacrifice of Abraham told from the point of view of the ram, and one called “Lemmings”, which is about a self-destructive tendency, remaining mysterious but compared at one point to the behaviour of lemmings. (The behaviour is not in fact based on a wish to die, but on avoidance action - during periodic population booms, grassland becomes covered with lemmings, who naturally swerve to avoid each other - sometimes swerving over a cliff.) I am unsure about the emblems. Homberger does not give dates for the reign of Formalism, but describes three first volumes published between 1947 and 1957 as typical of it. Obliquely, he suggests that a first volume published in 1961 was a bit late for the style. Those poets who made their debuts in that time may have continued to use the style for the rest of their lives, of course. “Formalism emerged as the ’cause’, one might say, of poets born in the 1920s.” (The New Romantics were, rather often, the age group born between 1910 and 1920.) If we look at “The Bat”, Nott is preoccupied with the rhymes, throughout, although the line length is freely variable. There are some tricky sound echoes: solemn with columns, seaweed with severed. The combination of rhyme and serious argument is what was about to be the sound of the 1950s.

Existentialism plus Formalism – that does sound like the 1950s of the textbooks. Poems from the North might call for a recount on that era – it is surely one of the best books of the decade. I think the abiding fact is the English poetry market having a dread of intellectuals. The process of becoming an intellectual gives you access to an intractably large range of possibilities – as this would suggest, a hundred people going through that process do not emerge in the same small room. They are free, it is true to say. Perhaps trying to find each other. So although Nott was an intellectual, although that is true of some other poets, Nott is not in proximity to those others. Charles Madge might be a useful comparison.

Was she excluded for being a woman? It would not seem so. Other women poets of the time fulfilled conservative wishes and lost popularity as time passed because they shunned modernity. Nott took a completely different view. The Poetry Book Society chose four books a year, which members received free as part of their subscription. There were also “recommendations”. The implication is that there were four new books, in 1956, better than Kathleen Nott's. I am sure that wasn’t true. However, consider this. In 1950 TS Eliot founds the PBS. In 1953 Kathleen Nott publishes a book attacking T.S. Eliot and other Christian literati such as Dorothy L. Sayers and Graham Greene. In 1956 the PBS selects her book as one that all members will receive a copy of... No, that couldn't happen.

I don't have the knowledge to write a definitive judgement on Kathleen Nott. I can say at this stage that I expect someone will do a Collected Poems and that sometime after that we will have a collective reaction to Nott which will be the basis for a critical judgement.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Ute and Ulf
Two essays about the history of the avant-garde in Austria and Germany (mainly).

Austrian poetry

(letter from Ute Eisinger circa 2003)

As a presupposition for this, let me say that the poets of Germany after 1945 no longer interest me and so I can hardly say anything about them, but in compensation I will say more about the Austrians.

The best accounts of Austrian literature since the war are in Peter Demetz, who teaches germanistics in California - everything should have appeared in English. For poetry, I recommend Hermann Korte’s contribution, Über Lyrik nach 1945, in the latest volume of the Reclam Geschichte der deutschen Lyrik, in which Kling, Czernin and all our favourites are well presented. If you want, I will send you a copy.

Ingeborg BACHMANN is overrated - an achievement of the women’s movement and of glossy magazines, which have stylized her into a Romy Schneider of literature. Her best poetry is indebted to Celan. She was certainly a dazzling philosopher (Heideggerian). CELAN is in any case in any respects unsurpassed, if also psychologically damaged. He saved something for the soul of lyric poetry - not because he was a Jew, but because he came from the East and drew from the same sources as the inventors of surrealism. During the single year, for which Celan held out in the previously aspired-to Vienna - he arrived in 1946, in a bombed-out, exhausted, hungry city - he only felt at home in the circle of fantastic painters. More than with BACHMANN, who adored him, he would probably have found elements in common with our underrated poet Christine LAVANT, who lived in impoverished circumstances in a Carinthian village and taught herself -as he did initially - from Rilke. Her poems - in reality prayers - belong to an alienatingly archaic Expressionism, as it is found more often in Czech or Rumanian poetry, in Siktanc, Stanescu, etc.

Then came the year of Gruppe 47, which in literary terms means the first “Anschluss” of Austria to West Germany: the only ones who travelled to their meetings from here were Bachmann and Aichinger, who were also the only women. Celan travelled there from Paris, where he had settled. Aichinger got married to Günter Eich, Bachmann was awarded the prize which Celan had deserved.

In the 1950s Vienna had come back to life. In a jazz cellar club named “der Strohkoffer”, painters met, whom the priest Monsignore Dr Otto Mauer exhibited in his gallery “Galeria nächst St Stefan”, and let them have discussions there too. That is the background from which the slightly older - he took part in the war - H.C. ARTMANN stood out. The so-called Wiener Gruppe [Vienna Group] is more an invention of the lamented, self-indulgent, Gerhard RÜHM. Artmann himself didn’t want to found anything, he was simply a splendid human being with a scholar’s attitude to life, unerring in his erudition and appearing in all kinds of masks, like Ezra Pound - but never with didactic gestures, always with a twinkle in his eye, lively. Vienna has been rich in theatrical gestures since the Baroque and Artmann’s gesture pointed once again to the grotesque, the Dance of the Dead procession from the legacy of ‘dear Augustin’.

For JANDL and MAYRÖCKER (and by the way it was she who educated KLING, a rather un-German bard) the ludic was decisive, the performable sound. All three are by now found in all anthologies. Very important - for Schmatz and Czernin, but also for the Swiss Ingold among others - was in the 1970s Reinhard PRIESSNITZ, who was a drinking companion of Artmann (who wasn’t?), and whose disciple Schmatz was in turn. Priessnitz’s legacy includes more essays than poems. No-one who wants to approach Schmatz and Czernin can bypass his systematic-theoretical essays.

The so-called Experimentals (SCHMATZ, CZERNIN and others) have had a hard time in recent years. Only Schmatz is on the path to success. One reproaches Franz Josef, primarily, because his writing has allegedly reached the cul-de-sac of self-observation - while Schmatz allows himself to write with increasing sensuousness, no longer raps himself on the knuckles when a tune begins to emerge. With “babel’n” he is for the first time dealing with what belongs to an outside world, instead of exploring what he has just invented. “tokyo, echo”, which has just come out, follows the same line. Whom both love: the Munich poet Paul WÜHR.

In the big picture, something is missing in contemporary Austria: the only thing which we have done for the world since the Second World War is Actionism, which was theorised by the Experimentals. The great talents of the Austrians are however found in the musical-theatrical, ludic, style. Because we suffer from an inferiority complex in comparison with the Germans, they are lying fallow. Austrian literature was always strongly involved with linguistic philosophy (Wittgenstein, Mauthner, Ebner; Kraus) and so must fail when it is inspired by beer and becomes ideologically earnest.

If I put myself into the picture… From the start I have only written about writing, above all about reading. I never shared the theoretical demands of the Experimentals (to analyse democratically, psychologically, system-theoretically), but hold more by a mediaeval code of honour of poet-apprentices, which prescribes that one should prove worthy of one’s master. It is said of me that I write like a man. But I regard myself as very heathen and this in turn as something very feminine. (Art is the working-through of flashes of inspiration as well as the knowledge of how one comes to the former - i.e. in this case highly erotically. Women perhaps do not write in a different way from men but procure other Muses. As I always felt close to the danger of losing the thread in sheer rhythm, I impose strict formal rules on myself.

Richard OBERMAYR writes prose - but it is like a quarry for poets. Recently I heard him as he was instructed to react in the framework of a literary project to an unfamiliar composition by Handel? Haydn? - and carried out this task quite breathtakingly. Not only that Richard thinks musically, above all his images are of an unheard-of accuracy and with that so completely freshly coined, that one can only wonder at them.

(There is some reference to a 1992 web essay by AD which had very few Austrian poets, no doubt a consequence of using a London library funded by the Federal Republic. Quite a few of these poets are found translated in the 2001 Chicago Review anthology, Contemporary German Writing. The Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry brought over Schmatz, Czernin, and Kling. AD translated all three. There are some translations of Ute Eisinger in the anthology 16 New German Poets [Burning Deck, 2008]. AD)

Ulf Stolterfoht
This is a general description of the position of the avant-garde in German-language poetry, written about 2007.

Once again: about avant-garde and experimental poetry


When one began, at the end of the seventies, beginning of the eighties, to take an interest in poems whose authors felt themselves in some way bound to the concept of Experiment, one was in a peculiar situation - stamp-collectors call something like this, I believe, a closed collection area. To be sure, access to the key texts of the German- and French-language avant gardes was, as was not true for the two previous generations, a big problem - a medium-solvent university library, an ambitious borough library was then often better equipped to satisfy the most urgent longings - only the common evaluation of this form of literature had altered radically. The concept avant garde had been declared obsolete by the culture sections of newspapers and by mainstream theory, and bid farewell to with a sigh of relief, it had from the start played no great role for the younger poets of the “new subjectivity” or even served, along with “elitism”, to fill out their image of The Enemy, and so it was only the poets born in the twenties: Friederike Mayröcker, H.C. Artmann, Helmut Heissenbüttel, Ernst Jandl, Oskar Pastior, and a few others, who kept the colours high and kept the “collection area” a chink open. With which naturally also a reception problem is named - much was then hard for me to understand or even not perceptible: in what way Elke Erb and Adolf Endler were whirling around in East Berlin, what sensations Günter Falk in Graz and Reinhard Priessnitz or Dominik Steiger in Vienna were furnishing, not to mention that the first volumes of Franz Josef Czernin and Ferdinand Schmatz appeared in these years - in Stuttgart the clocks moved a bit more slowly.

However that may be - it seemed to me, anyway, as if I had discovered something, which at the latest in the moment of being discovered by me had become part of history - or at least was declared to be so. Which meant, that also my own efforts towards poems, still mostly unpolished by avant garde theory and practice, but somehow aiming in this direction, probably were not right up to date. No catastrophe, but all the same a persistent irritation, which continue until, much too late, I read Heissenbüttel’s magnificent volume of essays On the tradition of modernity (Zur Tradition der Moderne), and realised that the skirmishes around the concept of avant garde did not centre in literature and its possibilities of development, but in positioning and the control of opinion - power struggles on a very small pitch. Heissenbüttel now showed impressively that the history of the avant garde did not begin with Marinetti and Mayakovsky, with Ball and Schwitters, but at latest with Fischart and Kuhlmann, and did not end with concrete poetry - rather the situation is (Heissenbüttel‘s theses can perhaps be reduced to this denominator), that we are dealing with an unfinished, unfinishable process, and that there is no going back behind the achievements of the avant-garde, which applies equally to those who despise it and those who proselytise for it.

So things had been tugged into position again, just that Heissenbüttel’s realisations did not seem to have reached the young poetry-scene, at least there was no trace of them to be found in the relevant anthologies and annuals. But then, in the middle of the barren eighties, occurred with a flourish on the drums the “Pentecostal miracle of German-language poetry” (Tobias Lehmkuhl): within a very brief space of time appeared the first volumes by Peter Waterhouse, Thomas Kling, Bert Papenfuss, and many, many others. The scene showed up as completely changed from one day to the next, and it became obvious to me that there really were people who had taken up the same problems in the foregoing years that I had, just that they had got significantly further with their work. Another revolution, then, which didn’t wait for me.

When the poets born between the beginning and the middle of the sixties published their first books, the situation was changed again. The lyrical Pentecost had not been able to hold back the progressive marginalisation of the genre, which had as a consequence a stronger solidarity between poets, also across ideological boundaries. So the course of the front lines remained clearly visible, but it became possible to discuss the differing ontological principles and to respect them. Heissenbüttel’s theses had finally fallen on fertile ground, as just as it had been unthinkable to follow an experimental opening without being informed about (for example) Peter Huchel and Paul Celan, so it had also become something that went without saying for a representative of a more narratively oriented poetry to have read Konrad Bayer or Oswald Wiener. Isn’t that progress?

This process has continued, if my views are correct, among poets born around 1970 and later, and has got stronger. Perhaps the literary balance of powers has changed - the newer North American poetry with Charles Simic and John Ashbery now certainly plays a larger role than the old tussles of the avant garde, still it would be hard to find a younger poet who would not name Thomas Kling’s poems as an important influence. This has as a consequence that today really bad poems are hardly being written - the knowledge of tradition protects against that - and beyond that an incredible variety of stylistic projects has developed, which permits groups, but prevents schools. And so among the younger poets there are only a few who would describe their writing as experimental.

If I now try to show, in what follows, why it seems sensible to me, all the same and continuingly, to stick with the concepts of the avant garde, of experimental writing, that it certainly not so as to excavate happily filled-in trenches - quite the opposite, I find the present, un-angry situation extremely helpful, and would be glad and grateful if it lasts until my farewell to poetry. On the other hand I am convinced, now as before, that what poems can achieve depends substantially on what theoretical or ontological measures underly them, and that, to put it mildly, different concepts have different carrying powers. Diverse is good.


But perhaps to start out we have to go back to the origin of all the misery, to Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s essay, “The Aporias of the Avant Garde”, of 1962. This essay has a great defect, namely that not everything which Enzensberger claims in it can be rejected out of hand- more of this later; the predominant part of his argument is, though, highly problematical or straightforwardly tactical nonsense, written although the writer knows better. That begins with Enzensberger seeing the avant garde essentially as a sociologically relevant phenomenon, which in the competition of aesthetic ideologies has won a larger share than he would like. Now, polemics do not have to be empirically provable in order to function - but the assertion that avant garde art, especially literature, was over-represented in the marketplace, was in 1962 just as absurd as it would be in 2007. All the same this error of judgment has enjoyed a long life and has a wide distribution now as then, of course rarely among people with the intellectual capacity of H.M. Enzensberger. Just here is the second problem of the essay: who argues in the way that Enzensberger does must not only reckon with applause from the wrong side - that was his goal. Give him the obligatory derivation of the term “avant garde” from military vocabulary as a free gift, give him the playing off of Lenin’s avant garde metaphor against the Futurist one as a free gift, give him also a free gift (even if this one grates rather) the equation of “Neues Deutschland” with “Völkischer Beobachter” - but don’t let him get away with, of course, never, the criticism of Lukacs’ admittedly bizarre concept of realism as being linguistically “tattered and rotten“! If you don‘t believe me, you can check the reference for 9 euros 90 - “The Aporias of the Avant garde” are available again, that is in: Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Einzelheiten I & II (Spiegel-Edition, Band 24. Hamburg: 2007). And this essay has even more to offer: from the surprising enthronement of Jack Kerouac as the “paramount chief of the Beatnik sect“, which Enzensberger takes to be the experimental division for North America - very witty! to the cutting and contemptuous: “A lab coat clads the breast twitching with visionary raptures; and what the avant garde produces, be it poems, novels, pictures, films, buildings or pieces of music, is and remains experimental.” Yo! you have to read it to believe it!

If I have indicated above that not everything is wrong with Enzensberger’s assault on everyone in the room, that refers mainly to two points:
First: the unenjoyable avant garde gesture of exclusivity: Like this, and only like this! Enzensberger: “Someone is already wrong when they insist on objective necessity, material compulsion, and inevitably progressing development. Every such doctrine relies on the method of extrapolation: it protracts lines into the unknown.”
And secondly: the problem of freedom by decree.
Enzensberger: “Just like communism in society (!), the avant garde wishes to impose freedom in the arts by decree. Just like the Party, it believes that, as a revolutionary elite, and that means as a collective, it has taken out a lease on the future. […] It proclaims total freedom as its goal while surrendering without resistance to the historic process which is going to release it from this freedom.”

These are really, and not just for Hans Magnus Enzensberger, two self-contradictions, whose consequences were that even today many older authors, whose work is undoubtedly to be grouped with the avant garde tradition, have very deep suspicions about claiming the term for their writing. These contradictions (which in reality are only one) seem to be resolvable only by finally taking the demand for and the promise of freedom seriously - it does not have to be instantly “total freedom“! The unpleasantly authoritarian tone which clung to many manifestoes of the Fifties and Sixties and which persists to this day in the pure theory of the experimental, is psychologically understandable (I think) as the defensive reaction of a minority pressed against the wall: against the prevailing malicious whispers and intrusive interpretation of the 1950s, against the “anything goes” of today - but it does not become more sympathetic for that reason. And if an opening both of concepts and of method should lead to a dilution - excuse me! Renate Kühn writes in her never sufficiently to be praised work of interpretation, Der poetische Imperativ (Aisthesis: 1997, 3rd edition 2020): “That such an open definition is appropriate was shown by further developments. Since the Seventies, the shifting of the experimental field in favour of “contents” has led to an increasing differentiation, which breaks with the taboos of the first phase and by doing that reaches a grade of textual complexity which is in noticeable contrast to the reductions of the first phase.”
And: “As an end result remains therefore only that new attempts to define (a single) “experimental literature” are out of bounds at the moment.”


Two attempts to define:

If in what follows we talk about “experimental poetry”, that refers to texts whose information content (if present) is not set before the beginning of the writing process, so ones which do not steer towards a preset destination of meaning or for example illustrate this meaning. Freedom is always also freedom of intention. So even a text that wanted to impart to us that one can reach a tenable result only by the experimental route: guided by rules or sounds, by permutation, combination, etc., would not be, in this stricter sense, an experimental text. “Experimental” should describe an attitude (Priessnitz), not a package of procedures or a bulging box of tools.
“Avant garde” should be taken to mean: the category of people who write such texts.

That was it. End of presumption.


Beginning of the hairy part, an attempt to rescue some basic insights of the avant garde and to grant a patent of nobility to experimental writing.

And to begin right away with the hairiest point: freedom of purpose, missing statement- or meaning-goals, do not imply the absence of sense - just the opposite! Just that sense is not something that allows itself to be captured and transmitted in a planned way, for instance in the manner of a “lyrical speaking about” or in the addition of semantic components by the reader - it has rather, to put it somewhat vaguely, to generate itself.
Renate Kühn again:
“Especially enlightening in this connection is a glance at the French “scene” of the Sixties. Conservative criticism reproached the avant garde of the time, represented above all by the “Tel Quel” group, with wanting to abolish the “author” as well as “sense”. De facto the category of sense was, however, not at all being radically thrown into question. What was being questioned was rather the traditional idea, oriented around notions of mimesis, of a meaning of the text as preceding it, which was also seen as something that could be exchanged for it (…) This marks not only the transition from “sense” to constituting sense, but (also) stands in direct relationship to an idea of the author as losing his formerly privileged status as autonomous creator god and now becoming a subject…”
I don’t think it can be put better than that.

What corresponds to this widespread misunderstanding of the concept of sense is, quite directly, a misunderstanding about the concept of understanding: just as it was felt possible to understand the directions for use or a recipe, it must also be possible, with the relevant previous knowledge, to understand a poem. But here there are already several zombies lurking. I am actually not at also sure that it is really possible to understand a functional text in the intended sense - to discuss this here, with all its semantic and referential implications or - well: aporias, would surely lead us too far - a small question mark shall suffice. To understand a poem, though, whether it be by Goethe or Oskar Pastior, in the sense of an understanding or several distillable statements, seems to me not only impossible, but above all not rewarding of effort. So as to bypass the theory-of-knowledge plane, just a provisional working hypothesis: one does not read poems to understand them, but to understand understanding a little better. Which would then lead, in a volte-face which is even Fregean, to the notion that all poems, experimental or not, might have the same sense, that is, to bring the possibilities and impossibilities of our knowledge before our eyes. That is a lot and little at the same time, above all though it is dangerous for the advance of my argumentation, for if it is true that a “conventional” poem has the same sense as an experimental one, then the routes which lead to this sense would have to be equivalent or at lealest comparable. That is a quite important objection, and I am not sure if I can disarm it altogether. If we proceed from here on the basis that all poems have the same sense, it seems to me that there are at least two significant distinctions. For one, the conventional poem does not know that its semantic thrashing around is to no avail - it is leading to a specific and singular goal of sense! This can be formulated in the most banal case in a concluding moment, in more elaborate versions it shows through as a kind of epiphany or bringing to light, which could only be shown and understood in the form of this specific poem. And it is always about the transfer of an appearance from the outside world, a “picture of an object”, into the language the poem. Right away there is nothing to be said against it, and there are enough cases in which this is also successful. Only it is, I fear, not thought through. Poems which want to communicate to us such “bringing to light” experiences (or really do communicate them - as I said, I don‘t want to exclude that!) are in a strange way speechless. For as they trust the immediacy of their central picture, the epiphany itself, however artistic its linguistic form, they have left poetry far behind as they travel towards figurative art. One could even say that they are experimental in the bad way mentioned above, because they use language only as a box of tools to bring the “real thing”, which does not dwell in the realm of language, to linguistic expression. The bringings to light, which experimental poetry is concerned with, are always bringings internal to language, a reflection of language about itself, and what from the world comes to light in the poem always continues to be recognisable as linguistically constructed. For how would world be thinkable, even outside the poem, if not linguistically constructed and constituted; and something which is generally seen as a defect of experimental poetry, the kind which relates to itself and language, was in reality its great advantage: to take things and deal with them, as they present themselves: verbally.

This is the one essential difference between experimental (so, actually, realistic) and conventional poems. The second follows from it and consists of this, that experimental “exploratory” texts seem suited in a special way to engage productively with the semantic area of “analysis of understanding and perception”. If it is true that with “understand” and “perceive” we mean not phenomena before or adjacent to language, but genuinely linguistic ones, and in fact both as regards the process of understanding and perception itself, but also in relation to their contents (whatever that might be- possibly just more understanding and perception), then it seems obvious to me that in poems, based on this insight, there is hardly a distinction between the course of the poem and the process of perception - they demonstrate both to the same extent.

The sense of the poem: to understand understanding, would then not only be the result, but displayed itself already in facture and form - noticeably, compulsorily and not because the author had painted it on his banner. In the idle case - and now it gets even more convoluted: the experimental poem would understand itself in this way, and even if I don’t exactly know what it means, it seems to describe the matter quite well.

Behind the self-understanding poem lurks naturally also the poem which writes itself, and we have landed at the court of the author. The problem began to be heard with Renate Kühn, as loss of “the privileged status as autonomous creator god “. Now, the experience of the “it is writing” such an existential fact for every poet, that I don’t see any great differences here. Even the installation of a “lyrical self” cannot an should not cover over this fact. Apart from the fact that “self” and author are naturally different entities, the “self” seems to make one authorship seem likely, on the other hand it fictionalises the authorship so strongly, that one could say with equal justification that the “I” in the poem problematises authorship or suspends its operation. In general the prohibition of the word “I”, like most other prohibitions, is naturally obligated to the authoritarian gesture, and is in that way (liberal and doctrinaire at the same time) formally suspended. And from a distance the concepts of radical self-revelation beckon, which was of course once an important avant garde topos…

A word on methods. I find it, as indicated above, difficult or frivolous to define experimental poetry by its methods. For one thing, permutation (for example) neither an attainment of, nor the exclusive property of experimental literature, but came and comes into action also in non-experimental literature, on the other hand I would not be able to say what distinguishes permutation, apart from its rather weaker grade of conventionalisation, from regular metres, strict rhyme schemes, or particular strophic arrangements. The sense of writing to set rules was from the beginning to delegate the burden of meaning and reference, experienced as something imposed on language. What then comes to utterance in the poem does not do so because the author actually wanted to talk about it, but because the rules of the game suggest or demand that one form exactly this statement or this word. This shift becomes clearest in the especially strict game-forms like anagram or palindrome. The “it writes” is then demonstrated doubly, as not only language, but also by its side the rule, sit together at the writing-desk. And beyond that the “It writes” is so to speak brought to book - just through the fact that the author normally selects the rule which he follows. Here there is in fact a small distinction from, for example, a rigid metre. The simultaneity of a speaking and of speaking about speaking, the meta-level which has been recruited, is certainly one of the few methodical constants of experimental literature. But one should not fall into the error of taking on the meta-linguistic portion of poem as the actual speech, a speech of a higher order, for which the referential and semantic problem would be put out of play. This mistake has been named often, not least by me, and is indeed laden with consequences. Logically meta-language is confronted with the same difficulties and impossibilities as “regular” poem-speech (and, as I believe, also everyday speech) - if that were not so, it would have as a consequence that the whole experimental concept would collapse in on itself or would at least reveal itself as superfluous. The notion, that one has only to pitch the linguistic level high enough (or low enough - see this discussion around the phonetic subtext in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, which it is then planned to establish as the “real” text) and so would have returned to a linguistic paradise, in which words and things are perhaps not identical, but reference and meaning have regained their innocence, this idea is as attractive as it is idiotic.

What remains are the marginal features of the experimental spectrum: avoiding capitals, phonetic spelling, lack of titles, setting in blocks, syntactic eccentricities, in fact the whole world of deviations. Deviant is good. But doesn’t have to be, all the time.


Not the method, then, but the attitude. Experimental poetry as the form of “realised freedom” (Ernst Jandl), which out of its own impulse must reject every compulsion of method - and reject, in the end, an essay like this one. It is an insoluble dilemma, to demand absolute freedom in writing and simultaneously to deprecate certain disagreeable ways of realising it. Freedom naturally means always, as well and directly the right to write otherwise. Just that freedom seems to me not just to be something which is conceded to someone, but in equal measure something that one has to take. Although freedom does not obligate to anything, its meaning remains empty without the three Rs: risk-readiness, ruthlessness, and radicalism. Or - one number smaller: one should try to transgress the limits of conventionalised language use in the poem, if one wants to get to a place which is not already adapted to tourists. And when Harald Hartung, in 1975, in his volume Experimental Literature and Concrete Poetry, observes that experimental literature has become established, its methods have been tested out many times and by now it would be “actually the absence of stimulation and surprise which prevents us from experiencing this literature as experimental in the provocative sense of the word”, one must, without sharing Hartung’s evaluation in any slightest degree, - also because experimental literature is not free of the habit of developing commonplaces and conventions and carrying them along down the years. On the other side Hartung seems to want to say, implicitly, that the lack of stimulation and surprise was always constitutive for conventional literature. Enough said. But even if experimental literature, exploratory poetry, should succeed via clever swerves in dummying, also in future, the hedgehog of convention (which is nothing else than redeeming its promise of happiness), yet a problem remains. It presents itself just as a hundred years ago and is linked to the basic claim of the avant garde, to make art and lived reality the same thing. This seemed to me, for a long time, to be particularly simple: in this way, that I saw reality as linguistically formed and normed and can probably assume the same for poetry, I have to do more than to display this congruence in the poem, or the poem would (see above) perform that of its own accord, if it owes its being to this realisation. What was not clear to me - and is even today still not clear to me: what consequences this insight and its converse implications have for my life - the logically obvious “No consequences!” seems to me by now to be too little - and what that, conversely, means for the poem. Check this out.


“about the execution we note that our investigation has no claim to completeness. the gaps in our work, which arose under pressure of time, are well-known to us. we would gladly have worked it through again, increased the number of observations, tightened the discourse, unified the terminology. we hope nonetheless that this has been confined to surface deficiencies, flaws in beauty, and that these do not impair the argument. we present the work with the promise, to deliver a more thorough version at some point.”

(from: reinhard priessnitz/ mechthild rausch: “tribut an die tradition. aspekte der postexperimentellen literatur“. In: Wie die Grazer auszogen, die literatur zu erobern. Edited by Peter Laemmle and Jörg Drews. Issue of text + kritik magazine. Munich: 1975, 1979)

Notes (by AD)
Original texts were in German.
“new subjectivity“: the essential point about this was the rejection of the politicisation of the “generation of 68” and while it played a big role for cultural journalists it was not primarily a literary event.
German-language: a generous concept to avoid unintended slurs, as for example Pastior was Rumanian.
 Fischart and Kuhlmann: 17th century German poets.

“Neues Deutschland” was an East German newspaper, and “Völkischer Beobachter” was the mass-distribution daily which spoke for the Nazi party.