Mid-century women poets: Coelsch-Foisner
At this point I am about to revisit a blog I wrote about 4 years ago, about Sabine Coelsch-Foisner's 3-volume work on mid-century British women poets. Then, I regretted its stylistic qualities while being glad to have a list of women poets one could go off and work on. (For the list, see the previous blog, posted August 2010) I admit that I did not read the thing back then, I merely saw it on the shelves of Cambridge University Library and spent a few hours examining it without daring to take it away.
The title is “Revolution in consciousness: an existential reading of mid-twentieth century British women's poetry”. This is a singularly unpromising subject. I am reminded of a review I have just been reading of a huge 1982 retrospective of Sir Edwin Landseer which the art critic Hilton Kramer saw in New York and responded to rather sarcastically. The sheer scale of the work (the Index starts at page 1165, the main text ends around page 1020) asks for the subject matter to be large-scale, just as the scale of the Landseer exhibition induced curators to claim grand status for the art included in it. This ominous symmetry is the most menacing aspect of such an endeavour. The fact that we are given a new product seems to suggest that the old product wrapped up inside it has uncharted potential and in fact needs to be revived. But although the work of Kathleen Raine and Edith Sitwell remains admirable, I am doubtful that the work of all the other poets even can be revived. Meanwhile the excess effort of the project may miss and obscure the virtues of small-scale work with its delicacy and discretion.
This is a passage from Anne Ridler, quoted at p.552:
Sitting in this garden you cannot escape symbols
Take them how you will.
Here on the lawn like an island where the wind is still,
Circled by tides in the field and swirling trees,
It is of love I muse,
Who designs the coloured fronds and the heavy umbels,
second-hand marriage, not for passion but business,
Brought on by the obliging bees.
(from 'The Phoenix Answered')
Surely this is not very inspired. And surely we don't need lengthy exegesis to break down barriers between us and it. And surely it does not require the creation of a whole critical vocabulary to explain what its intent is. (The style reminds me of Christopher Fry. The cleverly inverted description of pollination sounds just like him.)
The book would be more aptly titled 'people writing conservatively to avoid unpleasant thoughts'.
For example, take 'Ruth Pitter's book of cats”. This is likely to outlive the rest of Pitter's work as a commercial venture. The cat poems do not fit into C-F's cultural concept and do not get discussed. It seems possible here that the schema is unwelcoming to features which were really central to the poets concerned, and that the scale of the treatment does not mean that the handling will be accurate and revealing (of something that is actually there). This starts with the attribution of 'revolutionary' and 'existential' qualities of the poets in the title of the three-volume work. Would it not be more accurate to say that these poets stay inside their comfort zone? It seems a shame to write them up as scary people leading us into realms where we have to think and criticise, if they were really interested in children, animals, and gardens, and the idea of Comfort Zone was the source of the dominant stylistic factor, i.e. conservatism and rejection of a personal style. The Anglican Church has, in fact, represented for many people a Comfort Zone rather than a source of spiritual doubt, turmoil, and soul-searching.
The poets generally put serenity and harmony above other values. This connects them directly to affirmative culture, and we can see at this point that when Herbert Marcuse described that he was also describing- in large measure- contemporary feminine culture. But feminism preferred contestation and so imposed a boldly marcusean line.
I will quote one passage at length, describing the poetry of Dorothy Wellesley:
“The buried child reminds us of the hybrid constitution of the self, its origin and end in the child, which he suggests a primordial mode of being more in line with Jung's collective child-archetype than with Proust's personal memories of childhood.
Wellesley’s poetry abounds in such medallions – isolated lines which convey the central thought of a poem, pithy phrases, emblematic images and their ritual, dance-like recurrence, echo the central idea of her poetic vision: the circular stream of renewal and the persistence and resilience of life enshrined in a cosmic principle of birth and death. Wellesley’s “matrix”, her way of encoding this uterine mystery of life and sphingian wisdom, the preconscious chaos and early light of creation, provides a prototypical metaphor of the matriarchal mode: Matriarchal art “is a process which gives a pre-existing inner structure, found in the ritual of dance, external expression (Gottner-Abendroth p.82) This matrix or inner structure represents Wellesley’s concept of the numinous, of the instinct to survive mirrored in 'acts of love and passion':
Our loves are myths, our myths are loves. Out of Space, out of Time. The darting of blue dragon-flies over the lily pool, their beauty, their ardour, their lyrical ecstasy melting into union in the air, eternally they pulsate, eternally desire, their desire is their dream, their dream is their desire. They hold for a day their eternal illusion. This is their myth.“
(including a quote from Wellesley's autobiography)
The treatment of Kathleen Raine is one of the more acceptable chapters, since Raine actually was an important poet. C-F says that there was a whole wing of British poetry on the “spiritual” side, of whom Kathleen Raine was one. This is surely true, and she quotes at page 500 John Holloway and John Press as authentic sources for the idea. Press named a book on the English 1950s 'Reason and Energy', the “energy” part being authors such as Raine (and Gascoyne, Barker, etc.) The author says that Raine was not influenced by her contemporaries (except early on by the Experiment group, a group of student poets she was part of around 1930). This is true, but C-F does not say from where Raine did get her style. This account leaves out WB Yeats. If that source takes us back to the 1890s, it follows logically that Raine, Wellesley, and the whole congregation of “spiritual” writers were notably conservative in their approach, and that the esoteric-spiritual leanings of the Symboliste movement were the source of their cultural position. (James Webb wrote about this as the “Occult Revival”.) They presumably outnumbered the modernists. The belief in timeless values combines well, of course, with a rejection of innovation in matters of verbal form. If there is such a large party of poets sharing certain values, it is likely that the source of those values is several generations earlier, so that it has had time to disseminate. Despite the energy C-F has put into a battalion of deeply neglected poets, it seems possible that her work is short of context here – the relation of these poets to various strands of late nineteenth century poetry is not picked up. The thesis of “revolution” could not be sustained without establishing an older cultural set-up from which Nott, Lynd, Raine, Bowes-Lyon, etc., would have deviated in some way. It is doubtful that deviation was of central importance in what they did. If we accept that there was a cluster of modern innovations on the scene around 1920, then we can look at the poets who, in the 1920s, took these innovations on, risking the wrath of a literary audience which preferred the Victorian past, and see that they get a lot of attention from historians. But obviously not every poet who began publishing in the 1920s took on any of these innovations. A much larger number of poets were writing in a conservative way, where the influence of Tennyson, Housman, of Anglican hymns, of Theosophy and Symbolisme, was much more important. Change is more interesting to write about, but it loses its force as a concept when we look at large amounts of published poetry. Why should a style be valid for 20 years and not for 100? or only for two? Where is the scale built on which the point is marked where a style dies? These deaths are perhaps the key to understanding the history of poetry. The poets in question lack stylistic individuality (this statement excludes Sitwell, Raine, Stevie Smith). That is conventionally the point at which we stop recording and move on, but in a “recovery project” we also have to question the assumptions we brought with us. The idea of personal style implies not just a theory of Time but also one of property, individuation, demarcation - almost of territory. Certainly of competition. If you don't want the self to aggrandise itself and seize territory, then perhaps you don't want artists to have a personal style – or to express themselves, at the cost of other subjects. That whole attitude may be incompatible with a Christian ethos.
The account of Raine (at pages 500 to 544) is good but does not take on the esoteric doctrines which Raine saw as the laws of the universe. Although her religious commitment is what turns most people off, to cut the poems off from the doctrines which they illustrate is not the ideal solution. The imagery is not merely subjectivity, Raine was a true believer and her poems relate to Neo-Platonism (and the rest of it) as hymns relate to Christian doctrine. C-F has a 'New Age' religious esoteric doctrine which to some extent these aged English poets are being recruited to fill roles in. To some extent they fail by delivering lines of their own. It involves 'the alliance of the imagination with magic, its embeddedness in matriarchal mythology, its resistance to the objectification of art, its rejection and denigration of power and control, and its emphasis on communal processes and social subversion.” (p.438). (The source of the esoteric 'alliance' doctrine is Heide Gottner-Abendroth. It is safe to say that none of the mid-century poets described was a follower of Gottner-Abendroth.)
C-F quotes Raine:
But what, then, is it in the assembly of organs of special sense, at one end of the central nervous system, that makes a face, that has recognisable unity, entity, person? To think too far this way leads to that madness for which there are not faces in the streets, and in the trains and buses, not people, but collections of organs, topping a spine, whose upper bones are stretched and pointed a little – but no faces, any more than on the breast and belly, no more than the fringed circle of the holothurian or the medusa.
I am inclined to say that you can’t write poetry without knowing what the answer to this question is. You can probably get away without being able to visualise a holothurian. The passage underlines Raine's link (at C-F page 501) to the other figures around Experiment, such as Charles Madge and William Empson and Hugh Sykes-Davies. She was preoccupied like them with the relationship between science and poetry. Many of her poems are like science writing. But the answer she found was Neo-Platonism.
C-F has no interest in whether a poet is good or bad. This is inseparable from the book’s method of becoming, that is as a doctoral thesis (Habilitationsschrift) at the university of Salzburg. The guiding idea is to accumulate large amounts of irrefutable facts, so literary judgement could only be a secondary accretion. At many points, though, one would be relieved to see a sentence like “Ignoring the vagaries of fashion, Venetia Celandine spent 85 years working quietly and unobtrusively on delicate nature lyrics, none of which are any good.” It is quite reasonable to start with an inventory. However, a project of recuperation normally gives preference to poetry which is interesting to read, that is which is able to be recuperated. C-F is more like an archaeologist who regards every grain of pollen as precious information about a lost era. C-F deals with people who wrote little nature lyrics by spending 20 pages explaining what a nature poem is and why it is Really Important. This is extensively unproductive. At the end we realise that the subject is still a little nature poem and is something we understand perfectly well. We do not need to be told that Nature is Big. The interest is more why a nature poet – most nature poets? - fails to write a poem which is also Big. To analyse this in a concrete case would give an image which has the right proportions. CF has no interest at all in whether her subjects succeed or not. This also gives a problem of proportion. Thus when we read about categories such as “the sphingian voice in Dorothy Wellesley’s poetry”, “the Uranian voice in Ruth Pitter's poetry”, the “ethos of the numinous”, the epiphanic mode, the apocalyptic mode, “the voice of incubus in Kathleen Nott's poetry”, the entropic mode, etc., we are seeing unbelievably long descriptions of things which were familiar at the outset, and where the criterion of being interesting has been rigorously excluded. The names tend to be Latin or Greek words but the poets are English. The argument that the named poets were producing significant and personal variations on set genres is not convincing, and I am doubtful that these laboriously worked out descriptions will be taken up by other critics. In fact, the title of “critic”, meaning someone who judges and who writes prose recording acts of judgement relating one thing to another and setting things in their true proportion, emphasising what is of value and pointing out what is of low value, is of little relevance to what C-F has set out to do. Crucially, the project is missing any mention of artistic failure, and so of any reasons for artistic failure. This is where there is a feminist angle. Because this area of submissiveness, meekness, spirituality, piety, traditionalism, gentility, is where feminism started – as a violent antithesis. The problem with building a lens the size of a pyramid to magnify something modest by nature into Big Culture, is that you are obliterating the reason why feminism had to be invented. The lens operation is reducing our level of awareness of cultural sequence.
Does writing in these set genres mean a grand achievement or just harmonious unoriginality? The stage where the poem is interrogated to see if it measures up to the ideal is missing from the text. The degree of attentiveness is astounding but it has no fine lenses – the mediocre is written up with the good. The idea of creating a past for oneself, before birth, and rearing it up to monumental scale, can well be called the Curse of the Pharaohs. (Also a track by Metallica, we understand.) Everyone wants a past. If C-F's past is gigantic and overblown, that can be related to the modesty and delicacy of the literary works of female poets in the mid-century period. The two things are in no very exact proportion. Part of the Pharaonic risk is that the scale of the monument is related to the fact what is inside it is dead.
To take a section of the Past, to acquire it as a projection of cultural wishes of the Present, to blow up its scale in proportion to your wishes, to project into it cultural programmes that did not exist before the 1970s, to use it as a kind of projection of yourself, to recruit it as an example of the corruption of institutions you are in dispute with – this is also not compatible with a Christian ethos. In fact, it is what you would call Sin.
In the house I grew up in, there was a copy of a book of poems (The Invisible Sun) by Margaret Willy, which I think my mother had bought in the late 1940s. Willy did not seem to feature in the cultural histories, and this was a source of puzzlement to me later on. I am glad that C-F brings up Margaret Willy, not as a principal subject but in an interesting passage around p.282 where several “pastoral” poets are described. Books which later more or less institutional and metropolitan operations discarded had readers at the time, and gave them things they wanted. A female identification figure may well have been one of these things. Along with reviving these texts, we would hope to recover forms of sensibility which people practised and which relate to the texts as their counterparts, in a matching set. The contrast between the wishes of such an audience and the dominant styles of poetry is of interest. Certainly a lot of readers didn't like the styles variously represented by Eliot, Auden, Roy Fuller, Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, Brian Patten, and found other things to entertain them. These groups were less articulate about their preferences. Certain sources, such as the old Poetry Review, do articulate these “intuitive” (or conservative) positions. I believe they typically draw on a less adult and more unconscious stratum of awareness and so are more difficult to articulate. There just wasn't an intellectual hinterland to the meaning-bearing structures in the poems the way there was for Auden, Spender, and so forth. And Poetry Review couldn't articulate its anti-intellectual position in prose. The contradictions in such a position become very powerful as you try to write about them logically. The endeavour breaks down.
I am aware of a book called The Distaff Muse, (edited by Clifford Bax and Meum Stewart, 1949), which gathered female poets going back to the Middle Ages. But up until the early selections of feminist poets, starting to flow in 1976 or 77, I am not aware of other anthologies of women poets. It is an interesting gap and the temptation to fill it must be very powerful. Certainly the mid-century saw quite a few women poets, and most of them have been forgotten today. (The old British Council pamphlets give lists of significant publications, which always include women poets. The 1957 one lists Kathleen Nott, Iris Orton, and Ruth Pitter almost one after the other.) Equally certainly, they resemble each other and represent a distinct poetic sensibility, which it is of interest to discover. Presentations of this sensibility from the time itself, and especially first-person statements from the poets, seem to be very scarce and would be of great interest. C-F has corresponded with at least one of the poets, and this material is of high interest. It seems very likely that there is a feminine sensibility which accounts for much in the poetry we are looking at. We would have to define what that is before finding out how much the poets differ on it. We don't have 20 different femininities; all the same Edith Sitwell is a long way removed from Dorothy Wellesley.
It is likely that the women of the time admired certain virtues as particularly feminine, and that female poets demonstrate these virtues in verse as well as observing them. The observance was also a limit, quite notoriously. The 'gentility' which Alfred Alvarez attacked in a famous anthology introduction was predominant in the English poetry scene he was looking at. It follows that somebody liked it. The poetry under consideration fits perfectly into that guiding concept of gentility, and surely it would have been better to explore the motive for liking that condition than to mount up this idea of “revolution”. Predominance is not easily achieved, and surely the whole cultural order of gentility is a large subject and worth recovering, Evidently the modern taste likes intensity and conflict, and it is useful to articulate why poets such as these rejected those emotional values in favour of serenity, harmony, piety. If you reject psychological positions which involve conflict, that has radical implications for what kind of poetry you like. If we accept that concentration on the self (anyone's self) tends to lead to conflicts, as selves clash over assets which both sides want, then the wish for serenity implies a critical view of the self. To develop an original artistic style would be rather in conflict with this. An interest in abstract ideas could also be incompatible with it – so far as that interest promotes dispute (a form of verbal intensity) and leads to radical disagreements about the social order. If we discover that Kathleen Nott was interested in philosophy, marshalled arguments against Christian positions in culture, was a prominent member of the Humanist Association, and was overall an Intellectual, that is a vital piece of knowledge about Nott; it also points out that almost all these women poets were not intellectuals, and that we need an anti-intellectual way of thinking about them.
I am tempted to say “poetic taste went from a state where people believed that intellectuals could not write poetry because everything they said was angular, jangling, abstract, disturbing, to one where people believed that only intellectuals could write poetry because only they could sustain originality over the long haul and, fundamentally, poetry is about originality and ideas”. But this is not quite accurate. If in 2014 most poets are thoroughly unintellectual and banal, it shows that intelligence has not won. The Cambridge School do not dominate the poetry shelves of bookshops. Instead, we might want to trace the history of banal and domestic poetry in 2014 to domestic and banal poetry from mid-century.
I am tempted to say that “harmony” actually means “predictability”, a conservative principle where the past supplies the design rules. But matters are not so simple.
The idea of “revolution” suggests a realm of stylistic legislation which is able to be seized and changed, and which is thereafter binding on younger poets. To do it, you have to know where social power is. This seems to mean a degree of institutionalisation – controlling institutions, having been shaped by men, and working inside them – which leads us far away from where these poets are. Almost all of them believe in interiority and privacy to a remarkable extent. They are not open either to speculative stylistic reasoning or to factional impulses. Naturally this is part of being an out-group, and of being women and centred on the home and the domestic realm, while not doing significant things in office buildings, clubs, or universities. Because it is bound to authenticity and to empathy, it is important for the aesthetic principles of these poets. The word revolution leads us away from where these poets were happy and what they did best. The title is puzzling, but it looks (from p.407) as if the revolution C-F has in mind is a move out of the realm where historical change is possible, and into the archetypal. But if historical change is irrelevant, or a distraction, there are no revolutions.
Because C-F wants her subject to be revolutionary, she is unable to form a line of reasoning like “these poets ignore fashion. They did not go to university, being women. Fashion is produced where people throng together and have an intense shared interest. Perhaps the choice of conservatism is a solution to problems of not being part of the institutional literati who produced fashions.” This may not be right, but it is an example of the sort of hypothesis we need in order to get close to who these writers were. I suspect in fact that “revolutionary” and “existential” are male concepts and that they actively lead us away from recognising what these old-fashioned women poets believed and desired – and created.
It would be interesting to trace the development of fashions in poetry, perhaps to include semi-successful ones as well as the ones which became central. The very early history of these styles is the most revealing phase. No doubt the universities were important, and no doubt most of the innovative writers were also members of a dominant group in one way or another. Edith Sitwell is a striking exception in the 20th century, not because she was not part of a dominant group (the landed aristocracy, no less) but because she never went to university and was not a man. It is hard
not to see a structural link between these facts and her lack of influence on other writers. However widely read she was, she lacked followers at the time and in fact never has had followers. It would be helpful to be given an exploration of how women poets influenced other women poets during the century. Was this what was going on? was Raine influenced by any women poets? Surely it would get us further to analyse how women poets were immune to innovations and “movements” and lived in a poetic world that didn't need that sort of thing. Such writers had a completely different sense of time. Later, as women poets came to be primarily graduates, these rules changed or disappeared.
The point of conservatism is to be acceptable, and indeed to be accepted. Whoever accepts, is accepted. C-F offers us nothing on such questions as whether more scripts by women poets were rejected than ones by male poets. It is hardly likely that adequate evidence still exists on this to be recovered at this date, but after all it would be interesting to know if projective ideas like “brilliant women poets have always been put down by men” have any validity except the candle-power of projection. We would like to see contemporary examples of generalisations about women's poetry or reviews of it. Negative reviews would be the most interesting, since after all it is the non-appearance of women in the history of the period which is most perturbing. This material is missing and after all the key processes are hardly inside the realm of literature. I am quite certain that there is neglected poetry by women from this period, but there is considerably more neglected poetry by men. The audience for poetry at the time was limited, and publishers were quite keen not to lose money. No doubt poetry got turned down on all sides. The process of losing out will stand a great deal of attention but clearly the losers are a diverse lot and not some wholly uniform and virtuous congregation dressed in white robes. I don't know whether we can retrieve some of the lost poetry. There is a lack of uptake from the wished-for audience. There is another issue about reviving and pumping-up poetry which was actually worse than the familiar poetry of the period and gravitated naturally to the dampest of the storage cellars. Where only heroic critic-historians wearing waterproof boots dare enter and linger.
C-F does not mention Lynette Roberts, Audrey Beecham or Eithne Wilkins. I definitely think that 'recovery' work should be directed at these. Indeed. Roberts has been recovered, with the admirable republication volumes edited by Patrick McGuinness. Work on Eithne Wilkins is progressing, I think we can say, among the fans of the 1940s.
Final points. Clearly there has been a deluge of gifted women poets since 1990, and I would recommend to anyone that they go and plunge into that deluge rather than struggling with these mid-century poets, most of whom can never be revived. Also, Deryn Rees-Jones' anthology 'Modern Women Poets' is much more effective as a way of getting to what from this blighted period can be revived. I suspect that reading groups spending an evening discussing an individual poem are going to be an effective way of dealing with the rather alien rules and suppositions of this era.
I should confess that I have only read volume two of this work, plus selected parts of the others while in the library.
After the end, I wish to quote a poem by Audrey Beecham (1915-89), a poet omitted by Coelsch-Foisner.
The vital nettle growing next the dock
Is less frustrate than I within this rock,
Whose blunted beak has tried a million years
To breach the prism of my crystal fears.
My fiery feathers are to fossils grown,
My blood-drawn talons sunk in nerveless stone:
A mountain’s weight is heaped upon my wings
While dauntless in the sun a small bird sings.
A changing word fell on me as I slept:
Yet, crushed in two dimensions, have I kept
The pattern of my predatory lust
Impregnable against the earth’s slow rust.
This is from a sequence named 'The Twelfth House', an astrological concept which the poet glosses as 'It denotes ... secret toil of the mind, envy, incarceration … also according to Hay, 'it represents banished persons, malefactors, lost goods never recovered, long hidden wrath.' (in the 1957 book, The Coast of Barbary). In the folklore of English children, the dock leaf is supposed to ease the pain of being pierced by stinging nettles. This never seemed to work. Beecham's pursuit of extreme states of mind, negative feelings, conflict, was basically unacceptable to most mid-century women poets, and also accounts for her appeal to modern taste. The poems are a total occupation of an emotional state one would like to vacate.