Thursday, 9 November 2017

Hue, sodality, eremite: Jack Beeching

Hue, sodality, eremite: Jack Beeching 1922-2001

Mordant on retina as acid smoke,
Hot dreams of eremite, or prisoner,
Degrade the vigil with a Judas kiss.
Only a lover’s bodily embrace
Tattoos a never-fading cicatrice.
(from “Words and Deeds”)

–The vocabulary choice is very precise but also exotic and striking. The theme is “words and deeds”, in this stanza fantasy and real experience. The “vigil” is staying awake late, evidently due to erotic arousal. This is treacherous (Judas-like) because it promises and then lets you down. It is made of smoke. The erotic vision bites into the eye mordantly, like a tattoo, but is impermanent. Real lovers, though, make a mark on your skin (or ego) which is a scar and never fades. (Tattoos often record the loved one.) The word choice is bizarre but the idea is not original. This is part of a section of 11 stanzas within a long poem (“Long Poem in Progress” as at 1970). Earlier–

Heron and owl defy
The piety of law
And in their precinct ply
Impaling beak and class

Then, the swan–
With white companion sharing
A holy sodality,
In hue and stance declaring
Natural legality.

The lesser fowl, flown hence,
Live nervously as minions,
Wanting a swan’s immense
Limb-breaking pinions.
(from ‘Allegory”, published 1952)

This is very good. Beeching produced at least four hundred pages of poetry, over sixty years. The question is, how good is it? I had difficulty evaluating Beeching’s poetry. There was the factor of invisibility – I had the 38-page selection from a 1970 Penguin Modern Poets (#16) but apart from a couple of pamphlets in the 1950s he put no books out until 1996. I located, on the shelves of the Poetry Library, pamphlets from 1950, 1959, and 1979. PMP 16 is a terrific book, a real door onto the unknown.  The Collected (Poems 1940-2000) followed in 2001 (which I don’t have). But there was also the factor of elusiveness – I just wasn’t sure how to describe this poetry. The pinion/minion rhyme is impossible to qualify – definitive, perfect, yet slightly archaic. Who talks of “minions”? The same applies to “hue” and “sodality”. The poem is “Allegory of Peace and War” and the theme that the strong can be independent but not the weak. Is this based on a real allegorical painting, or is it an imaginary painting? (Pinion appears 3 times in the 1950 pamphlet, so I guess he liked this word. I think the inherent dual meaning, wing/chain, appealed to him.)

I started with this blank feeling and have been looking for the aesthetic in the poems. The reason I didn’t have an emotional memory about the poems was that they were more technically brilliant than emotionally communicative. My other impression was that he was an extremely skilled writer. There was this feeling that he had spent years of writing all day and every day, learning how to turn 400 words into 100; the concision and clarity of his poems were just unique, they were almost intimidating for me as a writer. There are 3 poems of his in the 1952 PEN Anthology New Poems, which was silently an anthology of Left poetry. The biographical note there says that he spent his time writing Westerns – this would explain the unusual facility and self-control with words. It also connects, I think, with his expatriate status. It seems he lived abroad from 1956 until 2001 – having a steady but limited income (from writing pulp fiction, perhaps) would go well with living in an economy where exchange rates made pounds sterling go a long way. The information in two helpful essays in the on-line magazine Jacket says that he was a Catholic. So, he was in Catholic countries, and his book on the Battle of Lepanto could connect with a crusading spirit – this was a Catholic coalition fleet defeating a Turkish fleet and halting the spread of Islam to southern Europe. He wrote a history of Christian missions 1515-1914. The pattern of his history books (which were a major enterprise) is about imperialism, the overseas spread of Europeans after 1515. He edited a selection from Hakluyt for Penguin. He must have known a lot about naval affairs and voyages. It is obvious that these books are not conventional works of Marxist anti-colonialism.

There is an important text by Beeching in PN Review, issue 9, 1979, where he recalls his friendship with Edgell Rickword and says that the “critical voice” in his head when he wrote poems was Rickword’s. The text shows him as working at Poetry and the People in 1939 – when he was 17. So, “I was a teenage communist”. First pamphlet was in 1940. He moved on to Our Time, another Red magazine, edited by Rickword. I don’t want to play the McCarthyite tune, but I mention this connection because it is so important for Beeching’s early life and so unlike the rest of English literary life. He recalls his friends with tenderness and we would do well to accept that they did inspire admiration face to face, and that probably Beeching did too. He had a pamphlet out with Key Poets, who were owned by the Communist Party; Aspects of Love, 1950.

The 1952 anthology includes a poem about paintings, evidently of the 1650s or thereabouts, of Roundheads and Cavaliers. Its point is that today we have war propaganda, which is bad, whereas the paintings are realistic and unexciting. In PMP 16 we have a poem about a painting, evidently 16th century, Flemish, and by a Protestant, about a woman pinned to a wheel. It may be the cadaver of a woman. This is a display punishment. It suggests to me that Beeching likes to work from a picture, and that this gives a static quality to his poems, even though it allows for distantiation, and for the impressive level of control and precision which his poems consistently show. In the poem, there is a movement from detail to generalisation. There is not a tracking of a process in history, of history as involving process and change. There is another element here – a Catholic sensibility should use static visual images as basic to spiritual (and aesthetic) process, and would also be fascinated by the great Catholic art of the Mediterranean countries, produced by an ancient belief in “visual instruction” (for a largely illiterate flock) but then of course feeding the visual basis of those artistically favoured countries.

Two poems impressed me especially about Beeching. The second is “Weathermen in Hiding Play Jazz”, in which fugitive members of the illegal American revolutionary organisation meet to play jazz (“Their mythified explosion blew up the pathos cry/ Of all who stood nearby. They abhor a private tower/ For its long green perspective”). The first is in Truth is a Naked Lady and is about forty murdered Jewish writers. Undoubtedly this refers to the night of August 12, 1952, when thirteen ex-members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were shot in one night, on Stalin’s orders. Five of them were writers so I am unsure about the figure forty. More work is needed on this. But in any case, this is a devastating attack on Beeching’s former Communist Party colleagues and on the facts they so often wrote out of history. It is part of a series of anti-Stalinist poems grouped together in that 1959 pamphlet – the next one is about tanks and very clearly refers to the “fraternal intervention” in Budapest in 1956. Even in the Cold War, you can say that it was courageous of Beeching, given who his friends were, to draw up the arraignment against Stalin and the Communist Party of Great Britain.

The poems very noticeably bypass the expected aesthetic patterns of the time, I mean the 1940s and 1950s. This is another aspect of Beeching’s sophistication. He certainly does not fit in as a Catholic poet, and although he was a man of the Left . There is an element which links him to many poets born in the 1920s, that is he belongs to the “Formalism” so well described by Eric Homberger (in Art of the Real) as dominant between 1947 and 1957 (when the young but visible poets were, certainly, born in the 1920s). His poems are precisely rhymed and metrically regular. They conduct an argument, which is probably connected to the Metaphysical poets. The Metaphysicals were favoured at universities in the 1950s and recognisably a model for the Formalist verse being written by academics at that time. My belief is that this is just a form, rather than an aesthetic. That style could be used for poetry of very diverse artistic contents and moods. It does not give us the answers about Beeching. It does not need to be said that he did not follow the aesthetic of modernism. I think Roy Fuller could be a comparison – both were clearly Leftists working inside the Formalist idiom. This does not seize Beeching but it highlights a contrast – he was much less animated by dramas of doubt than Fuller, and his vocabulary was much more recondite. This is a start, anyway. Beeching was much less worried about the problem of commitment, and in fact wrote much less about being political. It is almost as if the drama is in the vocabulary choice. We learn from Beeching that some of the poets who did not become visible, in the decades up to 1990, were writing in the conventional and admired manner.

He used the word love in two book titles, as well as a Naked Lady in another one (Truth is a naked lady, 1957). But these are not love poems nor personal, autobiographical poems. The subject area is moral interpretation of human behaviour, individual or social, often with character as the focal point and the thing which is being tested and judged. Evidently these statements would hold for the majority of poets using the Formalist style. This leaves as a puzzle why he did not get published more in the period, say 1950 to 1980, when people committed to this style were in charge and many books were being published which were judicious rather than lyrical and wise rather than subjective. I do not know the answer. I do not find links to the 20th C Catholic poetry I am familiar with, but on reflection his Metaphysical poetry could also be called Baroque, and he may have been reading 17th C Catholic poets, such as Crashaw. Francis Thompson and George Barker were attached to these sources, and there may be a hint of them in some of Beeching’s poems – not much, though. (‘Myth of Myself’, the later title for 'Long Poem in Progress', could have a hint of ‘The Hound of Heaven’?)

The poems often have a biographical subject. A human appears as an object of thought, and rather than external action much of the length is taken up by turning over judgements on the human. The amount of time given to the subject’s own thoughts is limited. They are reduced to theological objects much as the allegorical swan is reduced to a painted object. These are familiar structures in Formalist poem designs. The classroom analysis of the poem may be going through steps similar to those which the poet is putting the (third-person) human subject through. It is unkind to say so. If people found the classroom interesting, they should find the poem interesting too. But the payload is less artistic pleasure than a sense of being wise and judicious.

'Myth of Myself’ is partly a negative apocalypse (society is going to hell in a handcart) but also has an autobiographical element. ‘Words and Deeds’ pours scorn on the writer for using words but not deeds, but later in the poem the theme becomes the Word, the gospel saving souls. The first part is set in what must be an Orthodox church, though we do not find out which country it is in. A boy has a strange moment when he is in love with the Virgin, in a painting in the church. The poet is also present and as he turns his head the church spins – an apparent motion. The version in PMP is 175 lines long (the version in Collected Poems is 40 lines shorter).

Gold particles, in spectral saraband,
Throb an erotic motion all day long,
Dust in the sun, this flesh like gossamer.
Add word to word, since words, perhaps, are deeds,
As, knelt in dust, another planted seeds.

We are made of “dust”, which in erotic charge shines, as real dust shines in the sun like gold. The flesh is transient (like cobwebs, archaically called gossamer). The dust is light and dances (a saraband) in slight currents of air. The section opens with a line (actually line 6) “Word was a deed, but all the doing’s done”, in a noticeably 17th century and Metaphysical tenor. The line appears to mean that a declaration of love is an action, but is now inactive: the rest of the stanza describe the disappointment of lovers. This section portrays a series of perverse and disastrous states of love, brought about in ways that are far from clear. The situations are heightened, in the manner of anxiety visions, to a state like characters in some Jacobean tragedy; 'Is that the chilling face his lovers saw,/ An English mask, its every lust held tight?’ Just before the end we hear that by love “Annihilation may be nullified”, another paradoxical and metaphysical phrase. Salvation brings about redemption. George Herbert could have written this. His social criticism is closer to Christian poetry than to the Left.

Jim Keery didn’t like Aspects of Love. It is difficult to evaluate Beeching’s work across time – my impression is that the majority of the poems date from after 1970 (based on the count of pages after the poems which we can date to 1970, in the Collected) but I am not clear how his style changed. I am enthusiastic. The poems are in a conventional style, but as if to counter that are refined and stretched, so that they are both hard to follow and pleasurable.

As Jim Keery has pointed out, the Key Poets pamphlets are very good. The editor (Jack Lindsay) really understood the scene, the poets in the series were where it’s at for 1950. But Cold War was followed by destalinisation in the Soviet Union, the Korean War saw communists as the enemy fighting British soldiers, the Party was in trouble and the market of sympathisers was insecure and dispersed by events. This group was not short of talent, with Jack Lindsay, Edgell Rickword, and so on, but they never caught a wave. His problems with publication were linked to his having a group of friends who did not keep control of publishing and other resources. Beeching sharply criticised the Party (in astonishing poems in his 1957 pamphlet) and broke away, even as the Party was losing its energy and even the ex-communist market was confused and in dissidence. Beeching has a poem in The New Reasoner (Autumn, 1957), a collector for ex-Stalinists. The ex-Party group involved thousands of people and was rich in talent, but did not cohere as a market. Anyway, its loudest members distrusted poetry. The history of that group, say 1956 to 1980, is very important to the history of English (and Scottish?) poetry, although the course it followed is not obvious. It was an area of opinion rather than a group, I suppose.

The unused title for the poems in PMP 16 was The Polythene Maidenhead. This is a terrible title. I am obliged to Robert Hewison for quoting a tag from Richard Hoggart: ‘sex in bright packages’. The shift from packaging to polythene is quite easy, I think. What Hoggart was talking about was objects of popular culture which he regarded as degrading it. (These could be the covers of paperbacks, magazines, advertisements, or even films.) This could be used to locate Beeching’s later poetry: as in favour of emotional authenticity, so anti-capitalist but socially conservative.


I still haven’t read the Collected Poems, I can't take it away so I photocopy parts of it and take those away.
He didn't have a job. One brief bio note says he writes historical fiction, another says he wrote Westerns. I guess "Cold-cocked in Dead Dog Gulch" is historical fiction.

I compared two versions of two poems, from the 1957 pamphlet and the 2001 Collected. I found that the two linked poems, anti-Stalinist poems, one on the shooting of the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in 1952 and one on the tanks (evidently the tanks of Budapest in 1956). I found that they had been re-edited, making them shorter. Also, they had lost context: the title no longer identified that the poem about 1952 (and the shootings of one night) was about Jewish writers. So it ceased to be an anti-Stalinist poem. The same thing applied to the tanks poem: by abolishing any date, the new edition lost the fact that it was anti-Stalinist. The poems had disappeared into a no-place of generality. My conclusion was: the process of editing is crucial to why Beeching is unlike other poets, and may go too far; the versions in the Collected, are not the best versions, and this could apply to the previously unpublished ones (maybe 75% of them); by eliminating date and context, and advancing into timeless and serene wisdom, he erased the real meaning of the poems and thinned down their sense.
When you morally disapprove of modern society, there is a risk that your poems will veer off into a comfortable nowhere, with no friction with the real world. However admirable your principles, the poems may collapse into a cavern as no information is being transmitted and nothing really changes between the beginning of the poem and its end. The repetitive shortening of the poem by editing may not lead to something small and rapid in the sense of a projectile, high-impact and brilliantly polished, but to something which shrinks because it is not doing very much.
A useful biographical piece on the Net records that “He resigned from the Party in early 1957.” (This piece is an off-shoot from research into Jack Lindsay, another Communist writer who had trouble in the 1950s.) The writer seems to think that Beeching simply went on being a Marxist. Because the Collected ignore any chronological line, they give the impression that nothing changed over sixty years. This stagnation of history, perhaps the serenity or even maturity of a social order, suggests that the mind has no function to carry out: if nothing changes, we did not change anything by thinking and arguing. This is actually the opposite of communist belief; but people who absorbed the lessons of 1956 and the Twentieth Congress, and did not abandon Marxism, were led to regard the twentieth century as a sort of failed piece of theatre, while real change might come 200 or 500 years later.
You can point your lens at short-term changes. The mature Beeching was interested in expressing his moral objections via detailed examination of everyday life – this brought him close to Peter Porter. Inevitably, the everyday things are banal. Porter just wrote in a much more animated way, his generalisations may not be exactly a new philosophy but his level of serenity, or resistance, is very low and so the fabric of his verse is wonderfully alive, they are like some beautiful music in the time before “wisdom” re-asserts itself, and then the music starts again.

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