Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Dawson and The White Stones

One of the poems in The White Stones is based on the story of a mediaeval missionary to China printed in a book edited by the historian Christopher Dawson. Dawson was also a friend of David Jones from the 1920s on, and one of the 50 influences cited by him in the introduction to The Anathemata.
The book is The Mongol Missions and it was published in 1955. The translator is an anonymous English nun. I am using a download of the American edition, Mission to Asia. The book includes the narrative of “John of Plano Carpini” (there are other ways of reproducing this place-name) who set out on his mission to the Mongol court in 1240. The poem is 'Frost and Snow, Falling' and has “On the 9th of May, 1247 they began their home journey”, which is a quotation from p. xv of Dawson's introduction to the volume (American edition by Harper Torchbooks). To be exact they reached Batu's camp on 9th May and waited there a month before receiving Imperial permission to travel.
At the first sighting on the horizon, it seems possible that there is an ideological link, and that Dawson's ideas were somehow taken up by Prynne and offer an overlap between two generations of great poetry, Jones and Prynne. Less than a second later, I imagine, this starts to seem utterly unlikely. Dawson was a Catholic historian whose positions were a reaction to Spengler's, but who was mainly a professional historian, not a theorist, and whose abilities as a thinker were modest – inhibited by an English diffidence and dislike of abstractions which was not eased by his loyalty to the Church of Rome (and the very limited scope it allowed to original thought by men not in holy orders). 'Frost and Snow' draws on the original 13th C text of Piano Carpini and not at all on original work by Dawson. So, in doing this piece of research, I am expecting to neutralise the idea that there could be a link between Prynne and Dawson (and indeed Jones, Spengler, and Catholic theorists of the decay of Western civilisation). It seems at first glance that Prynne, writing 'Frost and Snow, Falling', was interested in the high snowfall deep inside the Eurasian land mass, and the causal basis of farming, and culture thriving on its surplus production, in a climate which had less snow and did not freeze the seed of any arable crop in the ground. Peasant economy, and feudalism, and the Catholic Church, therefore had an eastern edge, and Carpini travelled beyond it.

A phrase from Letter to the Ephesians

Cosmocrats of the Dark Aeon” is a non-Biblical phrase which appears in Dawson's 1939 book Beyond Politics and again in David Jones' poem The Narrows. Dawson is re-translating this from the Greek: Ephesians 6:12 in the King James version has:
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against.
But there is a longer version:

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the lords of this age, rulers of this darkness, against spiritual
- as there are two different versions of this text on-line. It is my bad luck to hit on a verse which exists in two different forms. The Greek version I have does not have the extra phrase, but there must be some basis for it. The Douay-Rheims English version is For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.” This is the standard Catholic translation and Dawson was probably referring to this longer text (whatever language he used).
The Greek Testament I have says kosmokratoras tou skotou tou. The word aeon is not in this Greek text and the 'darkness' is evidently spiritual darkness. It is credible that the idea of the visible world as being a snare is a Gnostic element picked up by Paul at a moment when Gnosticism was not clearly divided from Christian doctrines. Dawson's injection of the word “aeon”, one of the keywords of Gnostic thought, is a puzzling echo of this. If this world is ruled by the powers of darkness, it is not in the hands of God – and our senses are giving us wrong information. Christ was incarnated into a hostile cosmos. This is Gnostic. The darkness (skotos) can only be the flooding of the senses with deceitful information.
What did Dawson mean? He was certainly thinking of human, secular powers, and these were probably any technocratic and inorganic power, not just the totalitarian States of the 1930s.
It was his luck to provide tiny pieces which were picked up by two great poets.

'The Narrows' was not published during Jones' lifetime but was included in The Roman Quarry, a volume taken from his archive, which did not include the Notes which all the Faber books had. It is a monologue of a Roman soldier and includes that phrase from Dawson's 1939 book and relates to the English Channel as a barrier against invasion – so a composition date of around 1940, with German invasion being actively feared, seems credible. His character foresees wars:

Still more, and internecine too,
when the cosmocrats of the dark aeon
find themselves
wholly at a loss
in the meandered labyrinth of
their own monopolies.

Reading Dawson, it seems likely that Jones' version of the “cosmocrats” was the financial powers which ran the Empire, owned it, kept the profits from it, and that his interpretation of the phrase was anti-capitalist. The critique must include the forces of war – both the technology which makes modern war so cruel, the governments whose policies favour it, the armaments cartels which were so often discussed back then, and the unholy alliance of press interests and public passions which gave militarism its chance.
The most accurate reading of Ephesians 6:12 is as about invisible, spiritual, malign powers. That is a kind of Christian occultism. Paul says they are not of flesh and blood. There is almost no chance that Jones read the verse in this way. He was a 20th century man. However, he was concerned with the spiritual history of mankind and his interest in secular politics, income distribution, legislation, etc. should not be exaggerated.
The triple invocation of Powers is cast in terms sounding like Court ceremonial, and for that reason I suspect that the original is a spell of conjuration (since these were calqued on Court honorifics and means of address), and that the author of Ephesians had heard some of these spells. These are terms of flattery. It is amusing to compare them with the titles of offices at the Welsh Court which Jones picks up in two passages of The Sleeping Lord. There is indeed a Welsh tract which describes the officials of the court and their duties (“the Notitia of degrees and precedences”, he calls it). It is the kind of thing which nationalists stare at while thinking how there were no more Welsh courts after the completed English conquest, so 1282 at latest. The old Welsh poetry was full of flattery and attribution of titles takes up a large part in it. When Jones reels off “penmilwyr, aergwn, aergyfeddau, cymdeithiau yn y ffosydd, cadfridogion, tribuni militum”, he is re-enacting a central function. This whole passage has an occult echo of “powers, principalities, cosmocrats of the dark aeon”.
So much in the new thought of around 1918-1940 derives from Spengler. He more or less invented cultural criticism. But very little of it agrees with him – it was generally a reaction against him.

Christopher Dawson

The key thing in Dawson, for Jones, is the long chronological span – he sees the last two thousand years as one era and definitely regards the high Middle Ages, with the unbroken Catholic orthodoxy and the acknowledged power of the church, as the best time. In fact, his first book, The Age of the Gods, describes the origins of European culture in the 1st millennium BC, again with the realm of the divine as something real and autonomous from which anything to do with art and philosophy derives as a secondary expression. The Dividing of Christendom deals with the modern centuries, less interested in the development of cities, printing, manufacturing, and so on, than in the loss of religious unity, which for him is the supreme descriptor of the whole era. He does not seem interested in the much earlier division of the Eastern Church from the Western. He sticks to the version of historical events accepted by other Western scholars, so that his original thought is not given much space in the books and has to be worked out from the unstated assumptions. Thus Beyond Politics is not a demand for the end of democracy, although he says that there is no point in having more than one party, because they cancel each other out, and that totalitarianism is better than “heresies and sects”, i.e. Protestantism, because it offers spiritual unity. He is completely preoccupied with unity, and this alone would make it hard for him to develop any original ideas without being overcome with guilt.
When he writes about the Mongol Khanate, he singles out certain tribes near Mongolia who were already Christian, and only reluctantly discloses that they are Nestorian and not Catholic. He is unhappy about the differences between Europe and Inner Asia and looks forward to them disappearing as a result of a Catholic mission – this is the theme of the book. The idea of focussing on the differences between Europe and the semi-arid steppe, of tracing features of social organisation back to the economic and climatic base, is quite alien to him. Dawson wants to define societies through their religions, and the effects on art and law of religion, and has no interest in sociology as a possible factor in history.
Dawson is writing in Beyond Politics in response to the rise of totalitarianism in Europe. He is definitely against it, although too kind a man not to find positive features in it. He is definitely not asking for the abolition of democracy in favour of some kind of Catholic corporatism offering firm leadership from above and the benevolent silencing of secular culture. He talks wistfully about the corporatist state in Austria as a “Catholic experiment”; the Schuschnigg regime (after the assassination of Dollfuss, its founder) is generally classified now as fascist (“Austro-fascist”) but as Dawson does not seem to know any details about it we can pass by this as just a muddled and inchoate lapse. Dollfuss abolished the parliament in March 1933.
His writing on the Middle Ages sees them as a period of unity. If we look at 10th century Europe, we see above all a decentralised region with poor roads, few towns, and an amazing diversity of languages and dialects. Diversity is the most obvious feature. If Dawson sees only unity, it is because he is attentive only to a tiny educated elite, who use a standard Latin and communicate with each other in writing, also bound into a corporation, what we call the Church. His belief in unity seems strikingly wrong. This is a colonial view of Europe, through the eyes of a corporate group with shared assets. He does not regard the other 99.5% of the population, the ones who did not know Latin, as valid interlocutors. He is projecting unity based on the religion he belongs to and on a language which he learnt at school, and is disqualifying at every step anything which speaks any other language or is not part of religious activity. If you scrap the evidence, what is left is homogeneous and must have unity. It looks as if he is exchanging legal fictions, generalised ideals, for real and local experience. The differences between Irish, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse cultures, as recovered from their surviving literatures, suggest profound regional differences even in one part of north-west Europe.
His 1939 book is interpreting 1930s Europe in the same terms, where differences between classes and parties in a country, or between different countries, are disastrous. To sum up, Beyond Politics is a flimsy work, unsystematic, muddled, and without one significant new idea. He gives much space to coronation as the way in which Catholic ethics could seize control of the secular power, but gives no reason to think that this would have any practical effect at all – more, because he is talking about Britain the Catholicism is irrelevant.
The most original idea in the book is about an organization in the intellectual world which would integrate it in the way that the Church organizes spiritual life – as the Press is too influenced by the government and by capitalists. He really wants every book to say the same thing – again, he is dominated by the idea of unity and seems unfamiliar with the idea that innovation, free contest between competing views, speculation, or debate, can possibly produce anything of worth. No, everything was already there in the 12th century. Anything new is division. He doesn't make clear what form this normative and corporate organisation would take. I would like to know more about this, but my guess is that it had no substance and nobody else picked it up. (It was a time when writers were forming associations.) I would suggest that the knowledge economy is protected, not by a bureaucracy separate from the researchers, but by intellectual standards which have been internalised by them. If we skip ahead to the 1950s, civil society is often preoccupied by intellectual method, as highlighted by ideologies, Fascist, Marxist or indeed Catholic, which threaten both the quality of knowledge and civil society. This method actually is an organisation for scholars and journalists. It allows the free competition of ideas. Dawson, though, really seems disturbed by the idea that two books could say different things. We do all have internalised standards (which amount to an “institution”) but one of those is that we all write different books! Dawson's dislike of this is almost a neurological style – the idea of reading more than one historian, of having more than one political party, makes him uncomfortable, it is discord and ill-health. In the 1920s, the disaster of the Great War has discredited authority, and every inherited idea is being challenged. One kind of young person thrives on this, loves the new modernist art. Another kind hates it and wants a return to authority and classicism as quickly as possible.
Dawson basically wants the abolition of political parties, but has strong anglocentric inhibitions which prevent him from reaching a conclusion on this and indeed from writing in a logical way.
The impact of The Making of Europe and The Age of the Gods was partly their sense of the very long chronological scale. This may show up in Jones' poems where history reaches a crisis or turning-point, where a thousand years concentrate in a single moment. But it seems also that this very long perspective was helped by his indifference to change or to local effects: he wasn’t interested in the differences between between different European countries or different centuries and his books prefer not to register them. He did see links between some institution in the 3rd century and some process in the 12th century. This narrative is blank and epic at the same time.

Frost and Snow

The passage of Carpini quoted in the poem is at page 70 of the Mission to Asia book.
The idea is that every sedentary society is the same, and that the alternative, of wandering, is the opposite which makes every feature of sedentarism become apparent – losing inevitability to become a suitable subject for reflexive knowledge. “The wanderer with his thick staff […] he is our only rival.” The nomad is illiterate, no nomad society has ever had much to do with writing, and a scrounger – he cannot store food because he only has what he can carry. The poem belongs with a number of others in The White Stones as reflections on the end of the Ice Age and the differences between the Mesolithic and the Neolithic as phases of British prehistory.

So that when the snow falls again the earth
becomes lighter and lighter. The surface con-
spires with us, we are its first-born. Even
in this modern age, we leave tracks, as we
go. And as we go, walk, stride or climb
out of it, we leave that behind, our own
level contemplation of the world. The monk
Dicuil records that at the summer solstice
in Iceland a man could see right through the
night, as of course he could. That too is a
quality, some generous lightness which we
give to the rival when he comes in. The tracks
are beaten off, all the other things underground.

this is beautiful but also rational. The interest is in the relation between soil regimes and the energy flux from the sun – the description of the monk Dicuil's observations in Iceland, around AD 830, is there because solar light controls climate and only after this does mankind lead what life is possible in that climate. The description of snow as shining with light is singularly beautiful – however, the point is rather the reverse, that the cold is due to the lower insolation, of solar heat, at high latitudes, the thinner vegetation, and the scattered pastoral economy that follows from this. Of course it is also about how you feel, and how the air on your skin and the light beaming into your eyes affect this.
Because Prynne goes back to the Mesolithic, and the end of the last local Ice Age roughly 10,000 years ago, it is possible to define a resemblance to Spengler, and to Dawson as someone whose intellectual conception was shaped by opposition to Spengler, in the interest in “the morphology of cultures” and in very long chronological spans. I can't just abolish this. However, Dawson and Prynne disagree on just about everything, and few thinkers could have less bearing on Prynne than Dawson. To be honest, I don’t think Dawson was a great influence on Jones either – he just wasn't original and decisive enough as a thinker. Jones was developing his ideas in the 1920s, when everything seemed to be falling apart, and was fascinated by Spengler, who redefined the West as merely one culture among other subjects of “cultural morphology” in a long chronological perspective. Dawson went through exactly the same experience, and was a companion of Jones rather than his guide. Prynne's historical ideas come from geographers, the flow of “historical geography”; that whole lowland zone of Spengler's hypnotising speculations and the re-Christianising counter-attack passed him by.

Friday, 8 June 2018


On the Margins of Great Empires

Selected Poems
Andrew Duncan
Published in June 2018 by Shearsman Books

Seeing this sequence as a large, articulated work, put into its sections and with the culminations of a sustained amplitude, I esteem its achievement very highly. It is strong and active with the questions of power which underlie the strength; the instrumentalism of language is put under sustained pressure, both of invention and expression, and the outcome is negotiated closely across a wide range of historical predicament and moral passion. The method is conspicuously unoriginal, but its uses are strikingly productive and grand. – J.H. Prynne (1982)

Peter Porter, in a letter to Simon Jenner, 2003:

We talked on the phone about Eratica a little. .... But this letter is really about one thing, namely Andrew Duncan's Skeleton looking at Chinese Pictures, which I have been reading at intervals now for some time. I think that certainly it is a remarkable book and I also recognize that I must inhabit a shamefully restricted part of the literary world for me not to have encountered his poetry before this[.] …
What I admire most in Duncan's work is his willingness (indeed enthusiasm) for not confining things to any sort of ghetto. He likes as much history and mediaevalism as Pound but he also aspires to a contemporary concern for life in our modern mercantile mess. His chief fault, it seems to me, is a sort of verbal vertigo: too many words spin round and round[.] It's excellent the way he refuses to be cowed by any sort of notion of appropriateness or decorum, so that runic and traditional poetics mix with the city of London and sexual turpitude in modern life.[…] There are many properly 'big' poems  – something which doesn't get attempted sufficiently these days, presumably because it gives hostages to fortune.
if I say that I am reminded at times of Peter Redgrove, Lawrence Durrell, and even David Jones, with a touch of a more unbuttoned Geoffrey Hill, I am not implying any kind of influence ... It is certainly a rich book and now that I have marinaded my mind in it, I expect to return to individual poems with greater pleasure and understanding.

(AD) So this replaces the 2001 volume which is out of print. A lot of the poems post-date 2001.
The title comes from a book by Mircea Eliade, adapted. It is, directly, a line from “When history becomes myth”, a poem which uses themes from L’éternel retour. The reference is to folk cultures untouched by metropolitan literary systems.
Eliade says so many peoples were doomed to suffering and disappearance “because they live in the neighbourhood of empires perpetually striving to expand”. This phrase became “on the margins of great empires”.
There is a sentence in that 1982 Prynne letter “the displaced feeling corresponds to the Randgebiete and Randsprachen of an internalised but hostile imperium”. The German words are in the title of a book by Wolfram Eberhard, which approached the history of Chinese society through an idea of highly different regional components which contributed different things to the rising farming/ urban/ State complex. I was studying Chinese briefly, for about six months, in 1976, I spent time in the Oriental Studies library at Cambridge, and they had Eberhard’s book. The words mean marginal regions and marginal languages, and the phrase on the margins of great empires refers also to that Letter. I changed subject to study Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, and these really were Randsprachen.
The margins I am thinking of are not doomed to disappearance, I don’t think, just quiet under the huge din of megalopolitan cultures.

In the margins of the great empires
provincial cultures turning slowly on themselves,
a self-locking aggregate crossing the rim
of recurring. The abiding, the filling. Tales
in the prison where Campanella was held.

at the place where nothing is altered, the bottom
of a great lake.
Let us enter the greater forgetting
far from the decay of forms
mere laggards in the march of high ideas.
Disposed in the likeness of goodness
descend in the likeness of companionship.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

The prism of my crystal fears: a new angle on New Romantic poetry

It is almost 20 years since James Keery re-invented the study of the New Romantics with his work “Schönheit Apocalyptica”, and the era of sensational new interpretations has given way to a more solid phase of cataloguing and labelling the finds. But I am offering a new line on the poetry – not to cast into doubt the findings of modern research, by Keery, John Goodby, Nigel Wheale, and others, but to shed light from a different direction. This is by approaching the poetry from cinema.
There is a whole line of cinema criticism which presents British cinema as succeeding only where it is realistic and frankly faces social issues. Bypassing these is taken as a sort of evasion of responsibilities, a refusal to honour your debts. Lindsay Anderson seemed to believe, at his desk, that understanding the arrangements for finance and censorship in the British industry, grasping British social problems, and making great films, were roughly the same thing. One cannot get far with this subject without mentioning Julian Petley’s 1986 essay “The Lost Continent”, where he suggests that the climactic form of cinema is not realism and even that there is a current of English cinema which has avoided realism and reached quite other goals. This whole debate is highly relevant to Apocalyptic poetry and its frank rejection of realism and social relevance – and suggests a link between that stance and certain highly emotive and assiduously forgotten films of the 1940s.
This line of cinema is described in The British Cinema Book, a collection edited by Robert Murphy. Two passages are of special interest. One quotes the producer Herbert Wilcox: he made “happy, unclouded pictures. We do not want sadism, abnormality, and psycho-analysis” and clarifies “What he was referring to was a loose group of psychological melodramas (usually crime thrillers) which could be classified as British film noir. The central type in these films was the misfit, often a fugitive […] always tormented, desperate, unable to find a safe haven or a secure identity. In some films these protagonists begin to doubt their own sanity, and the result is breakdown or uncontrolled violence […] the actor who most often embodied this type was Eric Portman.” Portman was the Nazi submarine commander in 49th Parallel. He “starred in Great Day (1945), Wanted for Murder (1946), Daybreak (1946), Dear Murderer (1947), The Mark of Cain (1948), Corridor of Mirrors (1948) and The Spider and the Fly (1949). In all these films he played tormented, sexually insecure failures.” ”Leonard Wallace noted that Portman had a large female following: ‘It’s the strength being harried and tested by circumstances that really gets the girls suffering for him … No-one is better than Portman at expressing with a haunted, tortured, expression of the eyes and face otherwise taut and immobile, the inner bitterness of a strong man’s soul.’ Picturegoer readers, presumably from both sexes, voted him into fourth place in the 1947 poll for his performance as the tormented serial killer in Wanted for Murder.” Another chapter in the same book (by about 40 film scholars) also recalls Portman: “his intellectual forehead, hooded eyes – now cloudy, now gleaming – and tight yet sensual mouth suggest ‘ordinary people’ thoughtfulness.” “In Wanted for Murder he plays the Hyde Park strangler, and attributes his murderous drives to his hangman forefather (hereditary tendencies? Or morbid imagination? or both?).” In two films where he is the rival of Maxwell Reed, he is “suave, supercilious, secretive, rational, deadly jealous.”
Fans of Apocalyptic poetry will recognise many of these traits in the poetry we like. It would be crude to state that the fugitive’s exclusion from society echoed the Apocalyptic rejection of the State, the war effort, science, reason, and so on – but not untrue. While the analogies with dreamlike thrillers split the poetry, since only some of the poetry fits inside them (notably Thompson, Barker, and Beecham), the popularity of the films suggests first, that we would have Apocalyptic poetry even if there had been no manifestos, secondly, that we do have to allow for an element of the public mood during a finite period of the 1940s which fuelled art, in various genres, with specific predilections. How could Portman be fourth most popular star of 1947 for playing a serial killer?
Portman was not the cineaste who gave rise to this whole line of films, he was just an actor who had certain qualities, of ambiguity, high intellect, good looks, and anguish, among other things, which were necessary to carry these strange and perverse plots. Evidently, over a period of roughly three years, he had a “drawing power” which meant that this was a commercial formula and that people bought tickets because they knew that a film with Eric Portman would carry certain moods and that was what they wanted. In Daybreak he plays a hangman whose wife is involved with the thuggish and yet sexually charged Maxwell Reed. He fakes his own death to frame Reed, who is convicted– and Portman visits him in his cell, before carrying out the final act of revenge. In a compromised resolution, Portman confesses rather than completing the story. Then he hangs himself.

Corridor of Mirrors is related to French films by Jean Delannoy and Jean Cocteau, as the write-up in ImDB says. “In Corridor of Mirrors he plays a rich mystical aesthete who thinks he murdered Welsh beauty Edana Romney in a previous life. In effect, he frames, and then hangs, himself.” The text on the cover of the DVD tells us “Mangin [Portman] becomes obsessed with his new muse believing she is the reincarnation of his lover from a former life, whose portrait hangs in his home. He adorns Myfanwy with antique jewels and precious fabrics, making her the double of his first mistress. As their relationship escalates, Mangin’s controlling nature becomes too much and during a sumptuous Venetian-style ball he has planned for her, Myfanwy rebels against his brainwashing and tries to run away…” Mangin was recuperating from wounds after the First World War when he received the insight that he had lived before and loved a woman who looked exactly like the Edana Romney character. The unstated link between prophecy and PTSD or shell-shock is significant. (Cocteau made a film of Beauty and the Beast and Corridor is a version of Bluebeard.) He frames himself for a murder he did not commit - repeating the climax of Daybreak by hanging himself. This was a commercial formula - crazy, why was this commercial?

The writer and producer was Rudolph Cartier, better known as the producer of all the first three series of “Quatermass” on television. To be exact, he co-wrote the script with Edana Romney, the female star. The words “antique jewels and precious fabrics” and “sumptuous ball” are code-words, people in 1948 simply wanted to see these things no matter what the plot of the film was. (Cartier was Austrian and directed, as Rudolf Katscher, a 1933 Peter Lorre film, for UFA.)

The agreed break-through moment is around 1933. George Barker, Dylan Thomas, and David Gascoyne are starting to write poems in a fundamentally new style. This was the substance on which the theory of Apocalypse, in 1937 and later, was founded. It had tendencies in common with Surrealism – which was of all things a productive idea, one which spread in a thousand directions. My argument is that the Surrealist line in cinema produced a kind of film in the mid-40s which coincided with Apocalyptic poetry because this too had Surrealist DNA. But also – the poets watched films.

As is well-known, the 1943 American film Night of Fear starts with a sequence in which the protagonist enters a room full of mirrors, apparently in a trance, to kill someone in an act for which he has no motive. The next day, he has a memory of it but thinks it was a dream. I wanted to address the link between a corridor of mirrors and a room full of them. Both are an excuse for exotic and ambiguous sequences of visual information. Both tend to abolish the outside world of objectivity – the actor is as it were trapped in his own head, advancing only into mirrored space. But also, to expose the presence of Surrealism in American popular cinema – in a sub-genre of film noir where the hero is carrying out dream-like actions, under the influence of concussion, hypnosis, or traumatic dissociation. This is not presented as the free dissociation of the Parisian surrealists. Nor, due to censorship rules, is it presented as due to drugs – we have to imagine the trance-like and suggestible states of various noir heroes as taking place without drugs. Key elements of certain New Romantic poems were thus present in cinematic culture. In the novel, significant examples of dissociation and involuntary but compulsive action are in Hangover Square (by Patrick Hamilton), and Traitor's Purse, by Margery Allingham. In Allingham’s novel, the hero has concussion and amnesia, only able to follow a plan he does not understand and to escape from the police, who want him for murder. These plots noticeably resemble the stories of many Apocalyptic poems, where the protagonist is moving through the plot of a dream or an allegory, hunted by terrible dangers, unable to plan rationally but able to utter unnatural knowledge of Fate. The original Apocalypse, of John, can be fitted back into this realm, as an allegory involving prophecy, involuntary and inexplicable knowledge, visions which are partly paranoia.

If we take a passage from a Dunstan Thompson poem –

Where skullbone banners, no pity flags, are flying
Before the cruel and radium caves, he lairs
His treasure. There, while jackals scream, Lord Vulture,
Wing caged in crystal, sings his subtle airs
Of praise, recalls how orchid adder hissed
Above the crypt when lion and lover kissed.

Nightmare is livelong by a never-ending:
In the most mandrake forest, I walk, love lost,
Through panther grass towards no good morrow. Agave
Leaves like hundred years impale my ghost
On yesterdays of youth. At crossroad stands
The strangler with his four and frantic hands.
(“Lament for the Sleepwalker”)

this resembles Night of Fear because of the four hands (two people trying to strangle each other in the mirrored room) and the sleepwalking quality. But the striking resemblance is in emotional ambience. Whatever the brilliance of Thompson’s language, the tone is one of hysteria, doom, persecutory anxiety. The raw material of Night of Fear is also what Thompson is drawing on. Film and poem have the same high pitch. (The image of a bird’s wing trapped in crystal also appears in a poem by Audrey Beecham, “Whose blunted beak has tried a million years/ To breach the prism of my crystal fears.”) Thompson and Cornell Woolrich, the source writer of Night of fear, were in the same place, hearing the same music.

Corridor has a protagonist, Paul Mangin, who is animated by involuntary and compulsive actions due to re-incarnation. This is a variant on hypnosis, dissociation, drugs, etc. It is, however, the exit of a man from daily life into a myth – which is what the Apocalyptic poets were trying to bring about. (The model was certainly Delannoy’s L’eternel retour rather than recent poetry.) The reincarnation theme, illustrating a fantasy about love outlasting death, was present in popular films quite outside film noir – for example The Man in Grey and Morning in Mayfair. In Corridor the scenery is a house which is quite literally created by the protagonist as the realisation of a dream, a besetting vision. Objective scenery is thus replaced by dream symbols – mimicking what the director of an art film might do, and this is a step towards an English art cinema, but also mimicking a large number of New Romantic poems where the action is taking place in a dream landscape. A fully realised art film would be an apocalypse – an unveiling of what is hidden, where the unknown exhibits itself in highly sensuous and yet irrational form. We are entitled to imagine New Romantic poems being recited by Portman. In the mansion, there is a corridor of mirrors – behind each one is a 16th C style dress – for Romney to wear, as she opens each door. (The echo is of Bluebeard, but what we experience is unchained narcissism.)

Watching Corridor has a strong retrospective colouring for someone who watches Hammer films: because their standard scene of the travellers entering a magnificent castle from which the host is mysteriously absent is so clearly taken from Corridor. The standard costume of the vulnerable female stars is also derived from the brocaded dresses worn by Edana Romney. Corridor is a women's picture: there are almost no scenes without Romney, and her affair with Paul Mangin is viewed entirely from her point of view. She dresses up, tries on jewels, and looks at herself in the mirror, and Mangin is present mainly as a spectator for her display.

Nigel Wheale has already written expertly on the links between Michael Powell’s “A matter of life and death” and a sequence in Lynette Roberts’ Gods with Stainless Ears. There is another style of cinema, the melodrama associated with Gainsborough Films, which has links with Forties poetry and which needs to be brought in when we are considering the tenor of the time. What I am saying is that we need to look beyond the high-budget romances of Gainsborough and consider also the paranoiac and dreamlike noir which seized on Eric Portman as its face.

The movement “Apocalypse” had legitimate sources in Lawrence, Berdyaev, in the critique of merely sociological literature, in Personalist theology, and so forth. But some of the poems also bear noticeable resemblances to scenes in the films of the time. The view of film historians is that, although the Forties saw a great number of realistic films, in which the techniques of the documentary moment were adapted into fiction which reflected the objective nature of the war and of military technology, the cinema audience also wanted escapist films – to get away from rationing, bad war news, the absence of lovers on war matters. A larger share of the audience at home was female – without simplifying too much, this inclined film-makers to have female protagonists, to make melodramas, and to use luxurious settings (especially clothes). Since the 1960s, maybe specifically since an article by Andrew Sarris in 1963, historians have tended to agree that the practice of film history in mid-century devalued women’s films and devised several negative aesthetic categories into which women’s pictures could be safely put.

The memory of L’éternel retour is clouded by its role as something which was aimed to please the Nazis. The Nazi grip on the French film industry, during the Occupation, was especially hard. The title is a translation of die ewige Wiederkehr, a phrase used by Nietzsche. The neo-classical composition of the visually gorgeous film was arguably a homage to the neo-classicism of Nazi visual art, such as Arno Breker sculptures. Even Jean Marais’ fair hair was interpreted as a homage to Aryan values. Pushing that idea away, we can agree that the utter material deprivation of France during the Occupation, with the occupation administration confiscating everything to support the German economy, favoured a stylised genre of spectacular fantasy film, of which Delannoy was the chief director. (The exactions were part of the peace conditions accepted by the Vichy government and affected the unoccupied zone as much as the occupied one.) Les visiteurs du soir is the other obvious example of spectacle-film for the hungry. The point is that war conditions favoured luxurious dreamlike fantasy, even if democratic countries also had a dominant line of realist dramas involving ordinary people. When we see English poetry involving mythic fantasy and super-sensuous images, it does resemble certain Forties films. A more fundamental aspect of Apocalyptic poetry is the focus on the self and its subjective states to the exclusion of objective factors and even realism. This is easily detached from the “ideological ground” of living in a permanent state outside history and inside apocalypse, as argued by Berdyaev. Indeed, we can quite easily attach it to melodramatic films – both the lush Gainsborough romances of the period and the dark thrillers in which Eric Portman starred. We can even see it as a protest against the close-down of the consumer economy for the benefit of war production (and expenditure on aggression).

There is an American film called The Brighton Strangler (Max Nosseck, 1945) in which an actor who has had a long run of playing a murderer in a play called The Brighton Strangler suffers concussion after a bomb strike and then starts to re-enact the play by committing real murders. This is an unwatchably bad film due to the stupid psychological basis. However, it shows the lead figure acting out a compulsion in complete disregard of reason and calculation, and this suspension unignorably resembles the basic rule for Apocalyptic poetry. Humans generally consider their actions and conduct an inner argument to maximise success in a set of long-lasting social games. They exploit predictability by means of complex inhibitions, and compulsion makes them unattractive as allies as well as unable to react to circumstances. But evidently the point of departure for the Apocalyptic style in poetry is to suspend all that and give way to a compulsion – in which you can hear prophetic truths. Even if you dislike the poetic style, you have to explain why its key feature is also present in the dregs of popular culture, a cliché which a tired scriptwriter can resort to without thought.
A corollary is that we may need to look past the intellectual sources of Apocalyptic poetry (in Lawrence and Berdyaev, as worked out first by John Goodland) and look for broader reasons why these “trance narratives” were accepted and also why people desired to experience them in art. There is almost too much evidence. It may be that the worst of the films, and also the worst of the poetry, both surviving in large quantities, give us a less defended, more naïve, version of the theme.
Take the motif of a character who drinks to excess and where the resolution of a mystery is that he has committed a murder in a dream state, had a blackout afterwards, and cannot remember that he has committed the murder. In “The Black Angel” (film, American), he actually investigates the murder and helps to solve it. As you pile up stories that use this theme, it becomes obvious that Apocalyptic poetry is written in a blackout, the poems tend to be inconsistent and inconclusive because a “second draft” is impossible – the creative process is disconnected from the conscious self. In poetry, the trance state is felt as desirable – it is interesting that in film it is mostly frightening and involves the protagonist in horrible acts. The playing out of buried compulsions reminds us of drug culture, a few decades later – but this is just an interesting coincidence. The use of opium and cocaine was hardly unknown to the Surrealists or to Hollywood scriptwriters, but it doesn't explain why audiences found the “compulsive state” so attractive.We can list various narrative settings:

The hero is a prophet and focuses the true forces of history as knowledge, which he utters in this state (Gascoyne)
The hero commits murder in a trance-like state, possessed by hypnosis or morbid heredity
The hero is sleepwalking
The hero is enacting a myth under the influence of ancestral dramas
The hero is acting irrationally under the control of l’amour fou

Obviously these are quite different, but they all have in common the disappearance of reason in the surrender to irrational compulsions. I would like to add the spirit possession described in Kathleen Raine’s poem ‘Invocation’. James Kirkup’s poem ‘The Glass Fable’ (published in Poetry Quarterly in 1943) describes a dream which affects two people, who travel to the same place to meet.

He rises, slowly, in a long,
slow trance
ritual, receptive
an iridescent manuscript
is buried in the tomb of his loins.

While we would not normally see Kirkup as an Apocalyptic poet, he is very close to some of the poets we have mentioned. His poem takes the male lovers to a palace made of jewels – this is a literal echo of the jewelled landscapes of the Biblical Book of Revelations, but also resembles the “precious jewels” of Corridor of Mirrors. This would redefine Revelations as a spectacle film in the line of L’
éternel retour!

The crystal floors are deep, and spring
from wells of molten glass, the rooted walls
that fluctuate are fluted coral cliffs
rising from the antipodes, and lift
diminishing perspectives, turrets, towers

The effect is as if the molten glass were semen, and the frozen glass were a social surface, a place where two male lovers are happy – which is threatened with collapse (“pour in avalanches down/ deep deliquescent graves”). The crystals are a climax before it happens (so to speak). Fable also includes a corridor of mirrors. The link of prophetic trance to noir blackouts is a stretch, but Gascoyne’s diaries of the time show the kind of character who inhabits sleepwalking film noir: anxious, drugged-up, hyper, obsessed, vagrant. So the besetting impulses of Night of Fear connect to the dreamlike beasts of Apocalypse (where heaven has a "sea of glass"). Is Kirkup's the same glass as in the corridor of mirrors?

There is a group of poets who fall outside the well-defined Apocalyptic realm but who represent an obvious shared ideal, one which is typical of the Forties. We might benefit from defining another centre of attraction for poets, and temporarily masking out the Treece/Hendry statement of ideals. There is a whole anti-realist hemisphere of the world. If you make Raine, Barker, Beecham, and Kirkup the centre, you develop a different map.

John Goodby’s work on Dylan Thomas’ Notebooks, especially, has emphasised that the key developments were around 1933. So how do we align this with a line of cinema that patently wasn’t there until 1945? I think we have to re-think the development of Apocalyptic poetry. It was a broad movement and the subdivisions could be of great importance. As for the end of the movement (and James Keery has been collecting Fifties Apocalyptic poetry on a large scale), the end of the tormented/fugitive hero film cycle (and the effective end of Portman’s career as a star) suggests that this was a brief flare-up, and that public taste moved on. (Some of the thematic material migrated into the genre of horror film.) The Fifties saw a new sensibility, family-oriented, Christian, aimed at reconstruction and the revival of trade, etc. A group of works, in painting, theatre, cinema, and ballet as well as in poetry, went out of fashion and was buried and forgotten – ready to be salvaged to memory in the 1987 New Romantic exhibition, or later. (Poetry written in 1933 or 1935 could not be a protest against the deprivations of the war economy – this is a puzzle.)

I think we have to consider a new definition of Forties poetry in which "total subjectivity and access to a egocentric Sublime" are the key terms, and which is still sharply visible when we contrast 70s publications by those poets – so Raine, Gascoyne, Barker, Jack Beeching – with other publications, in the 70s. This sidelines the straight Apocalyptic line, with its derivation from Berdyaev. The consequence of passivity and steadfast belief in feelings is that this manner erases the masculine – it converges rather clearly on the (traditionally) female genre of melodrama. When you release what was repressed and unconscious, in a society which imprisons gay men, some of what is released will be homosexual narratives, allowed to flourish and complete. But this new style is not straightforwardly gay poetry (or gay cinema), rather it advances into a territory where the oppositions are erased. 

[Many Forties pictures arrived on a memory stick which I acquired I know not how, perhaps while sleepwalking. One of these is Frenzy (Vernon Sewell, 1945?, aka Latin Quarter), which has much the same plot as Corridor of Mirrors. A sculptor kills a model to put her inside a sculpture which records the image of his dead former beloved, etc. Although I am a Derrick de Marney fan, in a modest way, I admit I couldn’t watch this – it is too similar to Roger Corman’s Bucketful of Blood, and I couldn’t take it for that reason. Also the plotline is much like an ancient Janet Gaynor film (possibly Street Angel, 1927). All too obviously, the young woman inside the stone is like the wing inside the crystal. I intend to watch this batch as time allows, and it does include three Eric Portman films.]

[I was distracted by a minor character in Corridor. As the couturier, he struck me by his slyness, perversity, and the ambiguity and tension which he gave to his lines. After searching a bit, I realised that I had recently seen him in two other films (the 1952 Pickwick Papers and The Return of Paul Temple) and also that there was an infantile memory, as he had played the sheriff of Nottingham in the long-running Fifties TV serial of Robin Hood. This was an early example for me of being fascinated by the villain and bored by the psychological blankness of the hero (Nigel Greene?). Wheatley was an astute actor who could suggest complex and not necessarily pleasant twists of his personality in brief screen appearances. Alan Wheatley boxed set, anyone?]



Very engrossing piece with a fairly novel vantage onto Apocalyptic poetry and noir cinema of the late 40s. However in advocating an ‘egocentric Sublime’ are we not risking a sensate preoccupation, hedonism and an amount of moral ambivalence, not a naturalising realism to anchor us to our place of acting and being. However, a very unexpected perspective!<< - James Allison


I think this makes concrete the argument against the Apocalyptic mode. I agree about the risks. But there was another risk. People doing war work all day and at night studying for a technical exam or watching films about people doing war work. The films show bad people who do not give way to the group. The risk is of a total loss of entertainment value. Conformism taking over every cell. The art world losing autonomy and just being an extension of the state/corporate sector, which defines people as workers. In about 1950, a lot of people who had been working as propagandists for years saw this as an imminent possibility and were radically against it. You can be too group-oriented! So this is a risk too. The Apocalyptic theory foresaw this in circa 1937, on theoretical grounds, and designed a counter-measure. The insistence on subjectivity in the Forties movement is not aggrandizement but a withdrawal to a reduced zone, a refuge. It was the warfare state which did all the aggrandizement. The alliance of States, in the war, which desired peace and freedom, had to have a refuge area, where this desire was in sight in the form of subjectivity. People needed art, in 1942, in a way we can't comprehend. I agree there was a risk, in the egocentric manner, and it's significant that the romantic style in cinema had disappeared by 1950 – while declining in poetry (but not vanishing). I don't have analogous data for ballet, music, painting. The 1940s were full of crosscurrents and, while you can find the “new romantic” style all over the place, it obviously wasn’t dominant.
The problem in the 1950s was conformism – most people agree on that by now. Julian Petley's point was that a lot of virtuous English realist cinema was rather boring. That applies to poetry as well. (AD)

Friday, 6 April 2018

The short sharp anguish of silks: Brian Marley 

This is a poem from the sequence “Bargain Basement Sonnets” from Springtime in the Rockies by Brian Marley.

With steam striking his jug-handle ears, our
new luggage, smell of old newspapers in
the hall – surely something vivid must happen
without a slump in torpedoing the twentieth century
'Courage, Morris, courage...’ I neither neglect
to brush my teeth nor prune a handful of stars in
the early evening – as such, I know one true
particle in the mystery of bone-setting old
ceramics; the motionless dark, occultist
theorem, crumbs inevitably remaining
and I am (in my soupy way) blocking the nerves
from their coffee-veined stimulus – droning cellos!
The known-to-be-positive by reason, adjusting
a small knob – will frenzied faces appear on
our scanner? Duplicity, when peering up the
gun barrel, fingering the trigger: memories
are made of this!

It occurred to me to explain this poem. First, although it appears in a series it does not seem that the earlier poems in the sequence supply a context for it. A first approach might be that the poem offers discrete moments: a film of snippets which are not meant to explain each other.  They are also not complete in themselves, so we could try to restore them to a fuller context. This is also what the unconscious impact of the parts is: they are extremely rich in implication, and evidently they have been selected for this quality. So the start has a house, evoked in three senses. The old newspapers suggest banality. That is why the speaker wants something vivid to happen. The “courage” line is evidently a quote from something, probably a film; we don’t find out who Morris is but the meaning is simply “keep your spirits up”. It’s like “Sparkle, Neeley, sparkle!” The perspective widens out into a whole historical era – still dealing with banality, both a slump in fortunes and torpedoing, i.e. sinking the prospects of, the time the speaker is living through. I neither neglect to brush my teeth – this is a symptom of depression, perhaps, the pruning is less clear but the stars have to do with wishes and with personal fortune, again. Pruning them means aiming for order rather than exaltation. “Bone-setting” old ceramics must mean mending breaks in them; somehow the teeth evolve into the stars and the stars evolve into particles of porcelain (or whatever). Sensing “one true particle” gives you the ability to make super-accurate mends. The occultist theorem remains to be guessed at, the crumbs are left over after you have mended the ceramic, apparently without flaw. “occultist/ theorem, crumbs inevitably remaining” could describe the idea that “nothing is perfect (or) nothing can ever be restored to its original perfection” and this could be an “occultist theorem”, depending on how it is worded.  The pruning stars could be negligent perception – a glance which only registers 90% of the stars. The speaker does not so prune – this is why he can detect a single particle when gluing broken ceramics back together. Soupy means lacking firm structure and this is why the poet is blocking nerves (probably his own) from clear signal, despite the stimulant coffee. The droning cellos are a woody and indeterminate signal. The reasoning that something (a day, a city?) is positive is still part of the theme of wondering why we feel groggy, and the rational override is perceived as a knob affecting the image on a screen. Mood affects perception in the way that the tuning of a TV set affects the image. One also peers down rifle sights, and the duplicity is either ambiguity of experience or a trick by which we try to distract fate from imposing its wishes. The composite of these cognitive operations is stored experience, memory. But, after trying to reason himself into positivity, the speaker is contemplating suicide by gunshot.

The poem rushes through constant shifts of perspective. It does not settle down to a single one – we are knocked off our feet and never get to recover them. The film is as if taken from a camera which is rapidly rotating. The whole is an account of subjective feelings, as well as sliding through subjective transitions. It is dizzying. We also have to ask if the style has a social coding as a marker of belonging to a group of people united by stylistic values. This is elusive at this interval of time, but the composition is reminiscent of poems by Asa Benveniste, Tom Raworth, or John James, for example. There is a unity of sense, the discontinuity is in moving between different figures of speech, each of which feels like a leap of sense. The tempo has strong affective associations for me – it’s like the sound of some very swift-footed musician. The emotional timbre is clear but its melancholy is in contrast with the emotional feel – the style gives out blasts of insouciance, buoyancy, light-heartedness. I don’t find that analysing the explicit content of the poem helps very much.

Marley is a byword among the fans of Seventies poetry for writing that extraordinary book, Springtime in the Rockies, in 1978, and for vanishing from the scene shortly afterwards. The book Resurgam. Six Poems lists Springtime so may be later – although also dated 1978. Poetry Review (vol. 69, no.2) included an amazingly stupid review of Springtime so this may be connected to Marley’s exit. The review header lists six titles but the review only covers four– it looks as if the text was cut but someone forgot to cut the header block as well. It takes on four titles in under 500 words, this too was stupid. The message was that “the poetry scene is staffed by stupid and insensitive people and we are in charge and are going to make sure that anyone else gets driven away”. Marley was born in 1953 so must have been 25 at this time. I suspect he took this message on even if it wasn’t the idiocy of Poetry Review, specifically, which depressed him. Here is a poem from Resurgam:


This certainly brings us back to
the short sharp anguish of silks
blood dripping from the eyeballs
fire raiding the tranquil states
an obelisk erected before moon
peeps itself as a romantic image
in the calm waters of the Pacific
dedicated to the first words
of beauty rampant
a lust for the ceremonial inherent in catheter
clumsy perspiration rising at
my fingertips
I dive into canyons
drawing the snapping sail of knowledge
that length of gold tassel pulled
through the curve of both nostrils
colouring gently at her immodesty
this is what is meant
by artful dodges
open to the parp of honked horns
when the first archangel passes over

The booklet has two poems called “Rubble”. I wish he would come back. Sparkle, Marley, sparkle!