Sunday, 30 August 2015

The triumph of depth of field: Kathleen Nott

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. (This post partly duplicated in my book 'Fulfilling the Silent Rules')

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.

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