This is some authorial chat about the republication of a book, ‘Centre and periphery in modern British Poetry’, originally 2005. Liverpool UP have let it go out of print, but due to the generosity of Shearsman it is going to be re-published. Some authorial chat about it from circa 2003 is at http://www.pinko.org/36.html
The Liverpool edition cost £50 and it does not seem that many people saw it. I hope that people will get to see it now that there is a paperback edition. Because the Liverpool version was compact at 80,000 words, I have taken the opportunity of adding two new chapters. They are about the past of the periphery, Gaelic and Welsh, and although they don't improve the structure of the book I have included them because people seem interested in Celtic matters. The dwelling on concrete but formalistic details of textual construction may be irritating and certainly isn’t equivalent to describing the higher literary intentions of the texts. However, the nebulous overlay of celtomaniac fantasy is too voluminous for me to act in any other way.
From memory, I was writing it in 1994, sent it to various publishers in 1996, Liverpool UP said yes in 1997 but on condition of a rewrite, the rewrite was held up because I had to get permission to use all the quotes but went out in 1998. Then only six and a half years later they actually published it. Because all the parts are quite limited in scope, a rewrite was not necessary although 20 years have gone by. It is a very contained book. (An issue of Angel Exhaust, 14, in 1996, about poetry in the North, is related.)
It is about the periphery. It is specifically about Welsh poetry in English, Gaelic-influenced poetry in Scotland, and poetry in the North of England. It would have been good to write also about poetry in Welsh, poetry in Gaelic, poetry in Scots, and so on, but reaching a high standard depended on limiting the scope, and as I went on the focus got narrower and the information accordingly more dense. The aim was to plunge people into the life of various non-central worlds of poetry so that for the duration of the writing the peripheral would seem central and the reader would be transported to a different culture. The argument is that opinion on the periphery always writes off the central, Oxford-London, poetry, as tired and without artistic ambition, but that there is a line of artistically and intellectually intense poetry which constitutes the real Centre and which rarely seems to reach the periphery; and that there are some very important poets whose habitat is the Atlantic periphery rather than the metropolis and its surrounding area.
I am writing these notes in 2016, in between proofing the second edition and I am in Edinburgh. A visit to the Scottish Poetry Library earlier in the week was unproductive but did turn up a book which on examination turned out to be a translation into Icelandic of some Shetland poets. So you come from Iceland and the only poetry you want to bring home is from somewhere as similar to Iceland as you can possibly get? Unimpressive, but the point is that someone on the cultural periphery may be fascinated by other parts of the periphery and quite uninterested by what we view as central.
I got a lot of books from the Gaelic bookshop in Mansfield Street (Glasgow) and am tired from trying to absorb too much Gaelic vocabulary in a few days. Unsound for a holiday but I get caught up in these things when I am in Scotland.
I saw the 'Celts' exhibition at the National Museum. Subtitle “art and identity”. Think this is just to get people to buy tickets, because “identity” didn’t have much to do with it and the accompanying text was quite sound about the elusiveness of links between different cultural clusters which 20th C scholars boldly labelled “Celtic”. So the text points out that one of the repousse figures on the Gundestrup Cauldron (I can’t believe they let that one travel from Denmark) is a snake with a ram’s head. This is a figure of “dream transformation”, and in fact many of the forms on show in the exhibition represented shapeshifting, metamorphosis, forms you become in dream, possessions. If transformation is the theme, how can you talk about identity? how can you drag identity on stage? There was some painted pottery (3rd and 2nd centuries BC) from Clermont Ferrand which you could classify as “zoomorphic” and “psychedelic”. Some of the most amazing visual art I have seen in years. I have never seen this material before. (Images on Internet, keywords Roanne, La Grande Borne, la Tene, painted pottery, ceramique peinte.) The selling table outside had a new book by Peter S Wells which looks like a completely new interpretation of non-Classical European art just before the Roman expansion and during it. I couldn’t afford it but this looks like extremely powerful stuff. Obviously I have read other books by Wells & his source of propulsion is really abandoning the nationalist “enclosure” system and starting with the Iron Age material stripped of all interpretations. Psychologically difficult but in the end you make breakthroughs.
The shop has several issues of a thing called An Guth which on an initial examination seems to be a poetry annual containing a mixture of Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic poetry, edited by Rody Gorman. I had to buy a copy. I am going to have difficulty reading several hundred pages of this material but it’s just an exciting idea. They are really two dialects of one language and it would be desirable for reading people to know both dialects, just as reading people in Scandinavia can read books in any Scandinavian language (not Finnish). This doesn’t apply to me because I would have to acquire several thousand words of new vocabulary, Irish just has a different set of vocabulary. And more difficult verbs. What is this thing called the f-future? Guth means “voice”. (Possibly cognate with a Welsh word gweddi, meaning ‘pray’?)
Cunliffe. Cunliffe puts forward the theory of core and periphery as a description of relations between the Celtic world and the Mediterranean, which I reproduce. It is fair to say that the analysis of the role of Mediterranean luxury goods in Iron Age central Europe originates with a paper by Susan Frankenstein and Mike Rowlands in 1978. They were writing in a Marxist framework, and this remarkable paper is an achievement of English Marxism - a faction which has caused a lot of trouble in the study of literature.
Irish Sea Culture Province
One of the Gaelic magazines I bought in Mansfield Street has a short article by Colm ó Baoill, who taught Irish Gaelic in the Celtic Department of Aberdeen university. “They say that we are all Gael, Gael of Ireland and Gael of Scotland, that we are the same kindred from the beginning, the same language, the same culture, the same everything. But there were also differences between us from the beginning, no doubt.” He goes on to say that the sonnet never existed in Scotland, although it did in Ireland (sort of), and there was one Scottish poet who wrote a Gaelic sonnet – while living in Ireland.
Having created the idea of ISCP (Irish Sea Culture Province), people made a leap in the dark to believing that there were no differences between the different regions within this cultural province and that the ships which moved to and fro between the various sea-coasts had in fact carried an export culture which had dissolved local cultures and produced one homogeneous people. This leap came as a great astonishment to those who were used to regarding the whole area as a cluster of hinterlands, whose geography made them naturally resistant to ideas from outside. Indeed, we were accustomed to seeing those societies as ones where import and export, and means of transport, played a minor role and were underdeveloped. There was an issue of whether the regions were now redefined as littoral, and naturally open to absorbing and converting not new social patterns; or hinterlands, hinterlands even with respect to other inaccessible regions nearby, which were reached late by European waves of cultural change and which retained older cultural systems which had been replaced in the centre. The idea of comparing the different regional cultures - Gaelic, Scottish, Welsh, etc. - was promising but unable to get started if there were no individual scholars who were expert in more than one of them. If no-one today can master the different cultures of the Irish Sea Province, I do wonder if anyone could have mastered them in the 5th C AD – enough for convergence to take place, that is.
The idea of a shared culture had one quick win - that is, that Gaelic crossed the sea from its home and virtually the same language turned up being spoken on Man and in the west of Scotland. Indeed, there was a migration to Wales at the same time (roughly 400 to 600 AD) and for a while Gaelic was spoken in some districts of Wales. This is why you have names like Dolwyddelan (valley of the Gaels) and so on. For me the idea of similarities between the different language areas around the Irish Sea is a source of hypotheses - ones that have yet to be formulated.
The belief in language obscures the factual question of whether social organisation really corresponds to linguistic boundaries. To put it more bluntly, Scotland has two languages but that does not prove that it has more than one culture. The features attributed to the old Gaelic realm may also have been present in the old Scots/ Lowland realm. Notoriously (and entire learned books have been written about this) Scotland’s self-image is expressed in terms of kitsch, and writing about Scotland finds it hard to evade kitsch. Meanwhile, the image of the Celtic realms or Irish Sea province is always expressed in terms of mysticism, fairy tales, and whimsical nostalgia. Are these separate phenomena? or is there one grand unified cloud of kitsch in banks over the North Atlantic – like the ozone layer? This would make it possible that the reality underneath these international fantasies is the same reality – and Scotland had one set of social arrangements, although there was a strong contrast between old and new because the country evolved rapidly. This would solve the connected question of what was the nature of areas which were Gaelic-speaking (and so Gaelic in culture?) but became Scots-speaking in early modern times – this included an unknown amount of the Central Belt.
There is the “blank field” problem. Two completely blank pages resemble each other 100%. The further you go back away from observers and modern documentary technologies, the sparser the dataset is. So there is a “horizon line” at which the dataset is completely blank. So if you take Welsh, Scottish, and Irish “regional knowledge” back to a horizon line, a zero point, they resemble each other more and more closely, and then perfectly. Because any blank page is like any other. The less data we have, the more the pages resemble each other. And this is a meaningless convergence. If you define that meaningless, pristine, blankness as “celticity”, you are in deep trouble. You have an empty category. What actually happens, outside the realm of conservative scholarship, is total fantasy. So celticity is blankness flooded with a kind of Disney fantasy.
There is no such thing as “Celtic society”. Beneath the dreamworld, real regions have real histories. There is a real history of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, but they didn’t start from the same point of origin and the results of comparison may be nil and null. I want the real story. My book is also critical of nationalist mythology and of regionalist literary kitsch. My guess is that Welsh and Scottish nationalism have become more realistic, and more worthy of holding power, just about every day over the last 30 years. C-P is a historical work – describing effects of “peripherality” which have got weaker and weaker as British politics have evolved. The new material in the 2nd edition evokes a period before the Atlantic fringe became peripheral – when those regions felt themselves to be at the centre of things.
(ISCP) The framework that Cyril Fox took his idea from included within this “sea province” the seas off Southern Ireland (and the lands near them), and around the Bristol Channel. A corollary of this is that our studies should include not only the “Celtic” Cornwall but also areas like Somerset, Lancashire, and Cumbria. Once again, geography lifts us out of old-fashioned linguistic determinism - the master-narrative of nationalism.
History of the book
The reader’s report on C-P as it was in 1996 said it had to be much shorter and also include more things. I thought this was crazy as a set of instructions, but I simplified the structure of the book and overall the report was extremely valuable and stimulating.
Where I used a certain Irish poem to illustrate the links of the Carmina Gadelica to very ancient Gaelic poetry, there are Latin hymns from Iona (translations in ‘The Triumph Tree’, edited by Thomas Owen Clancy), 10th century, which are much better evidence. Too late to include this.
The moment when ‘Centre periphery’ crystallised (out of a mass of material which I was trying to integrate into separate books) involved two poems of Nigel Wheale’s, one about the ocean near Cornwall and one about the Clearances, ‘Cara Alba derelicta’ (he was married to Kate McAskill whose family came from the Hebrides and had been ‘cleared’ in the nineteenth century). It also involved WS Graham’s poems about the ocean. It may also have included Anglo-Welsh poetry. The centre of fascination was the ocean as a symbol of boundlessness, and the idea of an Atlantic fringe which was where people had the most radical political views and were not loyal either to capitalism or to the Westminster government. There was an analogy between the ocean and the uncultivated, even uninhibited, lands of certain regions near the ocean, an emptiness which made human arrangements seem irrational and which incited people to Utopian speculation. Fantasies about a “Celtic” past were part of this. This was something I felt and which was also felt by other people, by the poets in fact. I could see a book in this.
What is it that damasks the waves of this great bay
as if with a care for each moment within the deep sad systems
of the sea? Stone crop flares on the boulder face
and we walk the high edge, our words leaving no mark,
silent on the more general silence. The great sun
is absconded beyond the waste and we navigate as if
we were the old-time sailors, peering eyelessly to gain
the pressure of invisible land with a facial seeing,
the blind sight of those who move by dark of intuition
and the common surface of their skin.
(Wheale – from ‘Silent Coast’)
I just found this utterly beautiful. Years went by. – I can’t reconstruct the stages. Being told to cut it all down to 80,000 words and yet include extra themes was difficult. Both Wheale and Graham vanished from the draft, they just didn’t fit into any of the chapters, despite my enthusiasm. Over a long period, I separated the rest of the material – I mean, everything about British poetry from 1960 to 1997 – into areas, and slowly built up the areas into coherent books which followed a line of argument.
I was fumbling through my shed yesterday and found a magazine edited by Nigel (Ideas and Production) which has what must be the first publication of ‘Silent Coast’. It says that the title comes from a painting by Peter Lanyon.
One of the books about Gaelic culture which I bought has an essay about the legendary founding of a Gaelic kingdom in Scotland as being by the Corcu Reti, where Ret or Reuda was the founder. ‘Corcu’ obviously corresponds to a modern Gaelic word which now means oats. So, seed of Reuda. I am wondering if the success of the Gael in Scotland, and the unexpected decline of the Picts, was because they had invented porridge. Was this the breakfast of Empire?
Atwood. I should credit Margaret Atwood, whose two books on the myth of the North in Canadian culture were very inspiring to me. If you see your home region as “cold”, that is in relation to somewhere else, which you see as normal and welcoming. This is a kind of “perception from outside”. It selectively picks out only features which differ from another region (a culturally dominant one). Some of these “distinctive features” are merely projective, not real. It is worthwhile capturing this stratum of myth and distortion. I grasped her idea that you could just focus on what was distinctive about a region and blow the distinction up to giant scale. This is what I did for talking about the north (of England) and I found it very productive. I am talking about myth rather than trying to be sociologically typical. All the features of life in the North which resemble life in the South are basically left out. This is not reasonable but it is productive. Atwood was not writing about typical daily life in the North of Canada, but about myth, which is itself based on fantasy or anxiety rather than on things you can photograph.
I was checking once again the passages I quote from Lynette Roberts. The texts in Poems (1944) are different from the ones in Collected poems (2005). I see I managed to mis-quote one in the original Centre-Periphery. Yesterday I came across, by chance, a possible clue to the mysterious XEBO 7011. I guessed this was the number of a boat, possibly designed for coastal raids because of the camouflage. In a book on naval history in the library I came across an XE series of ships. Exciting! They can’t match because the XEs were midget submarines, and at 50 feet too large to be boats (with tag BO for boat). But the X bit could indicate secret and clandestine activity and so explain the XEBO label. An unfinished explanation but maybe this is as far as we can get with that stanza. I did find a source for “ichnographic”, in “ichnographic plans”. (Ichnos means “trail (of an animal”.) These are old, maybe 17th or 18th C, books of plans of buildings, so two-dimensional images of three-dimensional objects; which is like objects seen from the air (as in the poem). It is basically the Latin for “ground plan”.
I had the idea that writing about peripheral cultures within the British Isles would shed light on poetry written by people from non-European cultures but living in Britain. This is probably not going to satisfy anyone. The fact that I found this kind of work so exhausting, that it took me so many years to find the right source material, that I spent so much time learning Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, persuaded me not to work on any other particular culture in detail – but this may not persuade anyone else. Perhaps studying two or three minority groups sheds light on the experience of another minority group. I think there may be a competition for “site” between different aggrieved groups. For example, if someone wants to see more public exposure for poets of Jamaican origin, are they really going to be happy with a few chapters on Scottish poetry? or are they going to agitate to get the material on Scotland thrown out to make more space for their own in-group? This kind of struggle over territory blocks the channels which let you enjoy poetry. I want the whole thing de-territorialised.