Friday, 23 September 2016

John Wain

(justification: another poet not discussed in my 7-volume history of British poetry 1960-97)

One book I read in the “recovery” phase when I was studying the mainstream was John Wain’s Letters to Five Artists, poems (1969). This shows one of the original eight poets in New Lines breaking ranks and shattering every rule of the Movement’s rule-book. Wain got with the twentieth century. It is exciting to see someone liberating themselves, but this is not great poetry. At the point where you find one of the original ideologists of the Movement abandoned it and struck off in a different direction, you realise how complicated the history of these things is. Wain had a biography in the sense that he thought about things and as he made new decisions kept moving forward. Perhaps a thousand Movement poets (is this figure too high?) also made serious decisions to follow the New Lines thing and then later a dozen or two made serious decisions to move on, or at least modulate the message.
The crumbling of the Movement was a twenty-year process which did not follow a simple course and where a thousand significant details could be found. I concede that I haven’t written this history, although I would love to read what someone else discovered about it. I would hesitantly say that the Movement was terribly important in the 1980s but was decaying in power and energy during that time.
John Holloway is the other “New Lines” participant who showed radically different ideas and the capacity for changing what he was doing. I haven’t read all Wain’s books. There is no Collected, possibly because his Movement allies saw him as a traitor and talked him down. Obviously it is better to read lots of books and you get the “shared story” better as you travel through many individual books. It is just rather expensive doing this, even via the second-hand dealers. There is a 1979 selected called Poems 1949-79. This may not be wholly reliable, especially as he seems to have changed his mind about his early career, but it does show that by his 1965 volume at latest he was seriously rethinking formalism and his relationship to modernism. If there is a lesson in this volume (which I found compelling but not artistically fully achieved), it is that modernism was the only way forward in 1960 and that English poets who refused to take it on were blocking their own progress. On theoretical grounds, I would have said that there were a million ways forward and that modernism was just one path whose relevance to an individual poet could be zero. But it may be instead that educated people in 1960 were well informed about modernism and that they were imprinted by it, fascinated by it, to such an extent that it did represent the future and working through it was the only way to go. Wain’s 1965 volume seems to be wholly a reversion to and new start from a 1918 poem by Aleksandr Blok, “The Twelve”. The poem portrays red soldiers and whores in Petrograd, a zolaesque evocation of demoralised, criminal scum, who are destroying the old society and may yet found a new one. Clearly 1918 was no key to understanding the world of 1965, but somehow Wain had to go back to that point, and it seems that by doing so he found a way back to living in the Now. This is, palpably, what many of his cultured contemporaries refused to do, sterilising their own development an early stage. His 1968 volume, Letters to Five Artists, has caught up the Lag, is in the Now, he is part of the modern world and his poetry is part of the world he lives in, with few boundaries as regards source material and ideas. It had taken him that long to fight his way through Oxford, Englishness, and local anti-modernism. At this point he had emerged from the phase of “modernist historicism” and into the sunlit lowlands where there were a million possibilities. You can see him using the poetry as therapy.
The long poem Feng is not in the Selected. It tells the Hamlet story from the point of view of the usurper, given his original name (from Saxo Grammaticus’ book) of Feng. There is a possible link of John Wain and Tony Conran (1931-2013), as signalled by the letter to Conran in Letters to Five Artists. That discusses at length the ferns which suited the rainy climate around Bangor and which I presume appeared in Conran’s garden. Conran’s early work (say 1951-67) was almost entirely “social poetry”, messages to named individuals and often relating to named events, such as weddings. This may have influenced the form of ‘Letters to Five Artists’. The Conran letter is based on a strong series of symbols about the old rocks of Bangor, the thinness of the soil, the continual rain, and the ancient nature of the ferns which love this climate:

And the fern holds on,
rooted in any cranny, green and curling,
its form a patient embroidery, a scroll,
one of a set of variations on
a form basically as simple as an egg
and full of possibilities as a hand:
it grows, it climbs, it unfolds,
not to be questioned, permanently there,
younger than nothing but the rocks and water.

Their tenacity and ability to develop complexity from simple forms are “why you love them, o master”. The analogy is:

intent on your page of cool petal and stone,
assembling grain by grain in the dispersing weather
a soil firm enough for your unsentimental flowers:
enamelled, regal, giving to life their master
the strong homage of art, which cannot show
love except where love is. Their glowing patience

mellows the air of your steep house, that stone
ledge where you perch above your century’s weather[.]

Conran’s romantic mediaeval poems (based on figures from the Mabinogi, often) may have influenced Wain in venturing into a “romantic Middle ages” with Feng. Feng is in 17 parts and totals about 2000 lines. Wain says in a brief note says that he was interested by the theme of madness in power because of its relevance to many situations in the 20th century. Feng is “the sick and hallucinated person who seizes power and then has to live with it”. Shakespeare’s version is about Hamlet feigning madness but afflicted by doubts; Wain’s story is about the madness of the king. The story belongs, arguably, to a series of narratives about nervous breakdowns, in which poetic imagery and hallucination take over from political logic and an isolated but eloquent figure is unable to continue with a social position, with its interlocking roles, and sees social process as fictional and irrational. “The Graduate” is a classic example of this, but the Theatre of the Absurd in general tells such stories. Such stories often show uncontrolled indulgence in sexual activity or violence as instances of pre-social energies, released because social inhibitions seem as ridiculous as other social rules. It is ambiguous whether the resort to poetic logic, and to the processes of symbolism and metaphor, is part of a similar regression. It is also ambiguous whether this regression is a way out or part of a dangerous loss of control. Feng has an image of wings which attach to his body and fly with him; they are also his madness. (Horwendil is his brother, whom he murdered.)

I was content to hate Horwendil secretly, but the wings were not content
they dropped from the quiet clouds to snatch me from my dull content

making me act the revenge that till then was an unregarded dream
making me kill and seize power, forcing me through the doors of dream

never to wake. The vision I made in secret is now my world:
there is nothing outside it. Only the dark at the edge of the world.

(p.53) The condition “there is nothing outside it” sums up a whole situation. But Feng’s ambitions are not different from those of many political chiefs; the story exposes the raw desire for power, the wish to be first among the few, which is normal in elite politics. In the final poem, Feng anticipates his own death and commits a sex murder:

The wet trunks stood
erect, forming a guard. They were so still,
and she, all flowing and suppleness.
Her haunches…!
I was not chasing her. My body was moving
with the same tide as hers. The rain that touches
her skin, touched mine.
My feet on the turf were sharp and shapely hooves.
My brow was branchy. Pride came smoking out
in twin clouds with my royal breath.
To mate!

(p.55) The metamorphosis into a deer echoes quite a few other poems of the era, by Eric Mottram for example. The aesthetic of the poem is one of shock images, flowing on kinetic energy. Feng analyses his feelings but this does not give a way out, his feelings have dissolved into mania. His actions are surrounded by mystery and the events of the poem remind one of the horror films of the time. However, there are long passages of detached reflection which take us out into another world: Feng cannot take his Social being down the path his intellect has gone down. He has reached a higher plane but cannot live out this awareness – this is perhaps the classic experience of adolescence. This is especially true of poem V, ‘A Circle of Stones and a Nude Blade’:
Is it I who am free, and the animals enslaved
to their rigid patterns, those unbreakable laws engraved

on their nervous systems, so that to disobey
cannot occur to them? O whose dismay

at this fertile and comely den-partner no bear
or wolf would agnize?

The final poems see the king become a beast, so reaching a state of perfect unity and lack of consciousness which complements the states of doubt, nausea, and exalted insight in which he spends the earlier poems. In poem VIII he has what appears to be a slipping into the mind of Shakespeare, and watching a long series of scenes played by other people. He can only see these by becoming a ghost. Everything significant is visible but he cannot take part in it. This is like a drug trip and it connects with Seventies Underground poetry: which one can often see as a re-enactment of the history of society, without participation, by an onlooker who is not in control of the sequence of events. The poem unfolds through immeasurably powerful concrete images:
Today I saw the footprints of an elk.
I was repelled. A stag is stag-sized, but
this monstrous shape comes out of a bad dream:
too big for the trees, too heavy for the grass.
This parody of a man, an elk in armour,
a bad giant, hides his heavy skull
in a heavier helmet.
It is as if
he wished his animal brains to simmer slowly
in that great polished pot, until he might
eat them with absent-minded relish, then stamp on
guided by instinct and the forest breeze.

Large stretches of the poem, though, have Feng speak in 20th century language. This is an expression of the basic Absurd situation in which he finds himself: he apparently has knowledge transcending the local, wholly anachronistic knowledge, but it does not help him. He cannot switch off the madness. The poem is stretched between poles of intense physicality and complete abstraction plus detachment.
One could see Feng as an invasion of Movement values: it explores the breakdown of inhibitions whereas Movement poems are exclusively about inhibited action and stepping up inhibitions. The history of the Movement is largely the history of reaction against and advance away from The Movement. Strangely, the same applies to Movement poets: their history is mainly the story of how they absorbed movement values and then ejected them, healed up, and moved on towards something more artistic. My impression is that the 1980s saw a slow collapse of the values, as poetry escaped the grip of academics and the generation born in the 1920s lost power for biological reasons. However, the formalist thing was losing its grip by 1964 (as Eric Homberger has pointed out, in his important study). The 1950s revival of rhyme and regular metre lost its impetus and people stopped hearing poems as strings of rhymes. We have to look at 1964 to get this moment -and surely Swinging London, the Beatles, and the cult of youth had a lot to do with it. The new student culture went back to modernism and didn’t have the acquired anti-modernist hatred which the professors had grown so carefully. The expansion of the Movement was halted then, and its retention of institutional power until the 1980s was due to people sticking to acquired positions rather than to blossoming creativity. Wain’s transition from rhyme (as the keenest fan of Empson) to free verse was, therefore, a sign of the tide changing. John Holloway was a better poet, I think, but both of them show up the weaknesses of the Movement by their later trajectory, evidently the fruit of careful self-critique.
Edward Brunner’s book Cold War Poetry gives the full history of formalism (he does not use this word, which is described so well by Homberger) and shows that you can write a whole book about it without mentioning England (never mind Philip Larkin). By doing that he makes it obvious that you can’t just write off Formalism, or, especially, define it as a reaction to political problems in England – relating the middle class to the working class and Westminster to a rapidly vanishing Empire. No, it was mainly happening in American magazines and on American campuses. Of course, Brunner’s book also shows that it followed an “energy curve” and that energy had largely dissipated by the fatal moment of 1964. I wished, after reading Brunner, that Britain had produced someone who could actually write good formalist poetry. A fit of patriotic regression, no doubt. Holloway’s “The Landfallers” is artistically credible, fortunately. And Empson had nailed the formalist poem in the Thirties (and some more in the Forties).
People thinking about poetry, moving away from poems after they had written them, moving into areas of uncertainty and writing new poems they were uncertain about. This is the day to day reality. It is exciting to read a narrative which soars over the details and shows large-scale structures which at least seem to exist, hidden by the myriad details. Letters to Five Artists is exciting because the writer is facing artistic problems and is jumping off the boat to reach for a new place, a new synthesis. His personal story was bursting out of its inherited restrictions.

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