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.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Audrey Beecham and melodrama

Themes. Research into melodrama and women’s pictures has uncovered a set of conventions which on rotation seems to relate to a style of poetry being written in the 1940s, and further to expose a shift of the rules which moved this style into the past. Thinking of which film actor or actresses should deliver them is a way of thinking about or describing poems. This line also sheds light on mid-century British women’s poetry, an area which I have been trying to research.
It probably isn’t important to explain why mid-century women’s poetry was no good, since everyone accepts it. However, even in the Fifties you have significant work by Kathleen Raine, Kathleen Nott, and Beecham. It is of interest to ask what imperatives of the time they said No to. Audrey Beecham’s 1957 volume The Coast of Barbary fitted very badly into the scene of Christianity and affirmative culture around it:

The rootless, fastly bound to the rounded earth
Are dragged by tides and shoulder-glancing moon.
In childhood they renounce the tarnished spoon
And dance upon a howling rim of mirth.
By centrifugal force spinning from birth
Taunted and driven by a half-learnt tune
They spill their sands out for the singing dune
Or wander through uncharted wastes of dearth.
(from poem 1 of the 'Sonnets of the Twelfth House' section) Fitting in badly was basic to its being brilliant poetry. Centrifugal means nonconformist. People emotionally dragged by the moon are also called lunatics. Renouncing the tarnished (silver) spoon means rejecting your parents, part of a bad childhood. The music which should guide their steps is the tune they can’t quite get hold of. By being so overwhelmingly negative in emotional timbre, this reveals what continents of experience are opened up to sheer egoism. It leads out of affirmative culture  other women’s poetry of the mid-century is generally conceded to be unproductive and trapped inside values which made art difficult. I should point out that the 'twelfth house' is an astrological term glossed by the poet as 'The twelfth house signifies secret or private enemies, prisons, captivity, bondage, evil spirits, torments... this is a Cadent falling house'. Again, “It hath signification of private Enemies, Witches, Witchcraft… it is the House of Self undoing.” Beecham was part of the New Romantic movement, and her first book did not appear until 1957 partly, we suspect, because of that affinity. The dust jacket has Kathleen Raine saying “Her vision is of the dark, sinister side of feminine experience[.]” The title is glossed inside via a line from Vergil which describes a barren and hostile shore, and:
I am tired land and poor [...]
Piracy has played beneath my skylit eyeholes.
Men were enslaved to pass their lives in pain.
Monkey tribesmen clustered on my shoulders
Many times enriched my dust with richest rain.
(‘The Cruel Coast of Barbary’)
The literal meaning of the passage seems to be about monkeys pissing on the sand. This would be in effect a parody of procreation: not seed but urine, not humankind but monkey, not soil but dust. This is not what you expect in a poem of 1957. The ‘rain’ could possibly be blood, expended in some tribal feud. The speaker is the Barbary Shore, the land itself, around Tunis, Algiers and Tangiers. The curse underlies the whole book, the Desert Shore is barren because of past transgressions. The “eyeholes” are presumably ports, openings on the outside world. We wander the desert shore in an abiding state of longing for earth, woods, and sweet water. The ‘Sonnets on the Theme of Love’ seldom deviate from a steady shriek of horror and loathing. Sterility of the earth points to a drying up of fertility and nurture – as the feminine virtues, thus also to a radical exit from feminine nurturing into disruption and, apparently, misery.
Barbary is isolated, not just among mid-century women poets, but also among works of New Romantic poetry. Light can be shed on it via 1940s melodramas, a line of British films which was identified with women and loss of restraint, and by-passed by male critics more interested in theory, documentary, and social issues. Nonetheless there is a line of English film critics facing up to the irrational and enjoying it. Alan Lovell’s view on this is worth quoting: “I remember preparing for a course in British cinema by reading the plot summaries of all the films made in 1946-7. What appeared to be a melodramatic current stood out. Many films seemed to be marked by extravagant plotting and characterisation. The dramatic forces which shaped the dramas were emotional and large-scale, the fictional worlds marked by erotic cruelty, violence and perverse relationships.” So far we have a good equivalent for Thompson and Beecham. But Lovell goes on “Seeing the films produced a huge disappointment. I quickly became aware of how the elements which had interested me were downplayed and made safe by the writing, camerawork, acting and direction.” Of course, he is right, and we have to consider whether English creativity found it easier to succeed in less interesting styles. Now some plot summaries of certain films starring Margaret Lockwood. “Madness of the Heart (Charles Bennett, 1949) bombs for the opposite reason: cinematic overload. Margaret Lockwood hesitates between the convent life and marriage to a rich Frenchman, shrinks from his viciously snooty family, loses but then regains her sight, she feigns blindness to entrap her murderous rival[.]” “In Bedelia, (Lance Comfort 1946) Margaret Lockwood is a Riviera socialite who poisons her three husbands. In The Wicked Lady, as a cavalier socialite, she poisons an oppressively puritanical old servant (Felix Aylmer)[.] [Lockwood is also] in Jassy, where her devoted mute maidservant (Emma Canon), thinking to help her mistress, poisons brutal Basil Sydney, inadvertently framing her.” In The Man In Grey (1943), she plays Hesther: “Hesther is an adventuress. Bereft of social status, she attempts to usurp Clarissa’s position. [Rohan marries Clarissa but] Their contacts are characterised by passion and physical aggression, leading finally to his beating her to death when he learns she has murdered Clarissa. The film is unrelenting in its portrayal of the component of cruelty[.]” Fairly obviously, suffering is central to these plots, and inflicting suffering on others, in the pursuit of love or wealth, is the other main preoccupation. No less obviously, this matches exactly with the interests of Audrey Beecham in Coast of Barbary. (paraphrases quoted from film historians Marcia Landy and Raymond Durgnat) Quite apart from being avant garde, she is thoroughly connected to Gainsborough melodramas and to cinematic appetites which had become completely hors de combat by 1952. While this was a genre which was only around for half a dozen years, Lockwood certainly wasn’t the only star making this kind of film, and a much longer list could be developed. In Wicked Lady, you will doubtless remember, she also becomes a highwaywoman, robbing coaches in a mask just for the thrill of it. This is a bit like Jane Russell in Son of Paleface and Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, although the differences are equally important. When Beecham writes

But after death their wasted days shoot stars
Across the jagged course, the Dragon’s Tail,
And light the chain of chasms where their fall
Sundered a plain. The livid cage-like bars
Wherein they blundered will dissolve like hail
And carrion fate resolve in clarion call.

('Sonnets of the Twelfth House')
it is apparent that key features are unhappiness, those Twelfth House feelings, and passion: the tone is completely undetached, it is frustration which blows up eventually to geological scale – tearing the landscape apart. The poem is about passion surviving death. This matches the luxuriously staged suffering of 1940s melodramas. Another poem about passion after death is ‘Fossil Bird’:
A changing world fell on me as I slept:
Yet, crushed in two dimensions, have I kept
The pattern of my predatory lust
Impregnable against the earth’s slow rust.

She says the rock “has tried a million years/ To breach the prism of my crystal fears.” I looked at a whole lot of poetry written in the 1970s, and found an isolated group of poets who wrote in a melodramatic style, like Beecham’s, and who had all been active in the 1940s. I think we have a generational shift whereby poetry in this manner ceased to be written, and this is co-ordinated with shifts in acting style and in the wider cinematographic array of British films, advancing during the 1950s but stemming from a documentary tradition which goes back to the 1930s or arguably even earlier. The poets who continued to write in this florid manner were Jack Beeching, Kathleen Raine, and George Barker. Take this passage from Beeching:
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”)
This was published in 1970, but is strikingly like Beecham’s 1957 poems. It sticks out in 1970, because it is surrounded by poets whose style it has nothing in common with. I would like to quote a poet who faded after the 1940s, Dunstan Thompson wrote a poem which equates sex with being devoured:
The lion is like him and the elusive leopard:
Nine lived, he ranges killer cat my heart.
Green is the hanging moss, and green the jungle
Creeper: green where the gold plantations part
Their bamboo branches for a murderer's head.
In green courts he eats meat from the green dead.

See, like a rajah, how he ravens fine food.
The long claws fork their lightning; diamond, his teeth,
Glitter of jewel jaws, dazzleglaze their mirrors
Black blood and purple, stained points of glass. Beneath
Lascivious fur, his regal muscles flex,
Digesting fire, the marrow root of sex.
(from 'Lament for the Sleepwalker', in the volume of that name, 1947)
This certainly involves “erotic cruelty, violence and perverse relationships”. It is melodramatic, not just because it favours glamorous suffering, but because of its divine egoism. The world outside the poet and the loved object simply does not exist. This relates to star cinema, something which is unusual in Britain, but which was certainly there in the 1940s, for Gainsborough Films. The arrival of a documentary attitude, stressing the objective aspects of life, made this sort of poem impossible. A radical and pioneering recall to awareness was Julian Petley’s 1986 essay The Lost Continent”, a voicing of a suppressed line of English cinema which uses that key phrase, “always received critically with fear and disapproval”. Petley does what is hard to do in the daylight, he advances into a position where melodrama is normal and everything else is frustration. We have to go through this position to get to a proper evaluation of writers like Beecham and Thompson.

Beecham published a second book in 1980, A Different Weather. It does not add new themes to the first one and it feels like a room of 1957 which has clung on to its space. It is good in the same way:

Praise be to that most powerful bird of prey
Who rose from the smoke of equinoctial foam
And carrying a rose at whose single heart love lay
Laid it upon a heap of stranded stone
Boulders herded in swirls and dumped by the sea.
(‘A Different Weather’)

The poem “Four Portraits in the Manner of Francis Bacon” is interesting because it puts Beecham in a context, even if it is a sub-world of Fifties London. This portrait is “The Bone Man”;

A bird’s frame is white and yet grey and of bone
A bird’s beak is stiffer and dryer than stone
Yet this man is greyer and far more skeletal than
Any cluster of parched bones to wet which
A screaming stream ran.

Again, this reminds me of Dunstan Thompson. The two stanzas I have quoted use the same basic imagery: stones, water, birds, prey. Beecham keeps saying the same thing, but it becomes less elusive and more convincing with repetition.

Jim Keery has responded with one of Beecham's never-reprinted poems, from 1940:

Norway Poetry London No. 3, November 1940, pp.47-48.

Once the sound of its drum has burst the eardrums
And the loud shriek anguished at last to silence
Love of itself is vanquished;
But the relinquished
Hold of the lover sleeping binds the mind
To levels lower and to those more stale
Than pools of stagnant rain beneath the earth.

Spain, our ace, was tricked by molten gold:
And our sly trail unrolled on Europe’s map
Slugged action, flounders now through snow
To race the waiting bomb-burst of our hearts.
The rhythmical stop-go
Of fate’s two eyes suffice to hold us back
From any courage which would jeopardise
The bonds which hold our honour to a rack.

O England, may your blight of boredom melt
Like sweat of love, and may your wind ride up
Above the doldrums of a boring war
To blast the flags that flap in national shame
Out of the sky
And cheer the hands that fail
And fall from masts.

People are agreeing with me that Beecham was good. (Does “Love of itself is vanquished” mean “the excessive narcissism of my ex-lover has collapsed” or “excessive pain has made me unable to love again” or “love destroys love” or “my illusions about you are over”?) Does the bit where the wind “cheer[s] the hands that ... fall from masts” have the wind make the sailors cheerful as they fall from the rigging, or utter cheers of appreciation as each one falls?) The thesis I set out with was roughly that “mid-century women poets had an ideal of being ladylike which they put through in poetry and which proved to be a tangle of inhibitions which made their poetry faint and unmemorable”. I got this idea while listlessly watching old English films and thinking how unimpressive the female stars were – refined but faint. Beecham could prove this idea because her poetry is impressive but at the same time malevolent, barbaric, unrestrained, perverse, etc. I don't think this proves any idea of why the others were no good. If we take 4 women poets of the 1950s (Roberts, Beecham, Eithne Wilkins, Kathleen Nott), none of them is in the standard anthologies (Allott and Lucie-Smith). Only Beecham is writing in a melodramatic way. The striking thing is how forgotten they were, by the living literary opinion I know about. Wilkins never got a volume out. More effort is needed to dig up the poets who were forgotten by the “family values” culture of the 1950s and the mod superficiality of the 1960s. Nott and Beecham in particular should be recovered (see postings on this blog), but there may be others I don't know about.
The problem with the big grand music of the British Poetry Revival, whereby everything happened after 1960, is that it buries the poets of the 1950s. I have been guilty of this. The dominant culture of the time was repressive, conformist, privately pessimistic. Poets who were crushed beneath it should not be blamed for inventing it. The Fifties were full of frustrated and rebellious people, and it was those people who made the Sixties happen.
Beecham's most famous poem is “A Spell”, which is a curse of the lover or ex-lover (published around 1947? and in the Rexroth anthology 1948, then called “Exile”). Jim Keery pointed out that this is like the curse with which Kathleen Raine cursed Gavin Maxwell in 1957 (and which he wrote a book about, Raven seek thy brother). I am not sure this belongs to the history of poetry, but it is a bit linked to the spell-forms which dominate Raine's terrific book “The Year One”, 1951. These again were copied, formally, from the Hebridean spells and charms printed in the “Carmina Gadelica”.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Valley of the Dolls

I got a DVD of “Valley of the Dolls”, a 1967 film based on Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 novel about the bad outcomes for some young women, in the early Sixties, who had extremely conventional ideas about the role of women. I bought this because it is from the era of films I like to watch, but also because it is an example of a story about the oppression of women before feminism was on stage. At least, that was what I was expecting. Susann’s novel has sold 31 million copies. The film was the kind of thing which no boy my age would have dreamt of watching, when we were 12 or 22. This is partly why it was important to me to watch at age 61. I didn’t understand the problem.
The story is about young women at the higher end of the entertainment industry: "the “valley” is not a place but a narcotized state of mind, and the “dolls” are the pills that rouse them in the morning and knock them out at night." One is a singer and actress, one is a “showgirl”, one is a secretary who becomes an advertising model, the “Gillian Girl”, for a line of cosmetics and accessories. The dolls are barbiturate capsules, which were shiny and coloured. But also, more obviously, the young women, who actually look like dolls and take great care of their hair and clothes at each point. Dolls are mainly bought for girls and reflect their ideals of beauty. But is hardly deniable that these ideals are also desired, or demanded, by boys and men, not least film producers. The problem that reaching an ideal is also an act of compliance and submissiveness cannot be evaded. The actresses could influence the way their viewers did their hair and fixed their clothes as well as illustrating a story about young women following false ideals.
The film opens with an arty symbolic sequence. Voice: “You have to climb Mount Everest to reach the valley of the dolls”. Wire figures are seen on a mountain slope, then shift shape to become pill capsules. The powder spills and becomes snow. The poster says “instant excitement, ultimate hell ". Sharon Tate gets fourth billing.
I picked up a copy of Vincent Bugliosi’s book Helter Skelter, about the “Manson family” murders in 1969. Bugliosi was the DA who prosecuted the Tate-LaBianca killings, and he interviewed a number of the young women in the Family. Bugliosi says (p.172) “[T]here was a sameness about them that was much stronger than their individuality. […] same expressions, same patterned responses, same tone of voice, same lack of distinct personality. The realisation came with a shock; they reminded me less of human beings than of Barbie dolls.” (He had just interviewed Lynette Fromme, who was not convicted of a crime until years later.) The Family women were like that because they were under the control of a Hitler fan, obsessed with domination, who thought women were the lowest form of humanity. So why were Susann’s characters also like dolls? To answer that needed the arrival on stage of feminism.
Part of the impact of ‘Dolls’ is that the characters are so ordinary. The conclusion is that the social system does not work for ordinary people. This is so different from stories about how society rejects someone completely exceptional. That does not have political implications. The actresses in ‘Dolls’ did not have much of a career, (simplification – Patty Duke did). The film’s power derives partly from its banality, and from the lack of understanding by the lead characters of what is happening to them. Something you heard a lot in the Sixties was a tale about barbiturates, as numbing people to feelings and being used to blot out problems rather than solve them. They were mainly prescribed for women and the tale went on to say that it was the loneliness of housewives (the detail about being on housing estates miles away from town where there was no neighbourhood life was often added) that made them customers for pills whose function was to make anxiety go away. Everyone knew that they were mainly prescribed for women. It followed that millions of ordinary people were having a really bad time leading their ordinary lives.
The usual account of Sharon Tate is that she had little talent as an actress but was incredibly good-looking and had a sweet and trusting personality. In a way, Dolls would be less effective if the performers were more talented and more able to defend themselves – the camera picks up a combination of naivety and glamour and this gives the story its momentum. The usual story about Jacqueline Susann is that her clientele were badly educated and badly informed about culture – this adds further substance. This audience could see themselves on screen and they were also from the social group which used large amounts of barbiturates (continuing while the government, or civil society, failed to solve the problems which were making them anxious).
It is normal to see the take-off of feminism as starting in 1970. Prior to that, you have a genre of women’s pictures, which according to a rather well-known narrative were written out of history by critics obsessed with montage and the greatness of self-willed directors. I am not sure about the dates, but Andrew Sarris’ American Cinema (1968) gives high praise to figures like Douglas Sirk and John M. Stahl, evidently part of a process of making women’s pictures central to a new Hollywood history. Quite a theme of women’s pics is the centrality of suffering. ‘Stella Dallas’ (made in 1925 and re-made in 1937, which is the version I saw) is an example. Even cynical producers recognised this as good box-office. Women cinema-goers liked to see this subject matter. The conclusion that they liked it because life had been unfair to them and inflicted outlandish suffering is not hard to reach. That means that the plot material of Hollywood melodramas, already in the Twenties but probably in Griffiths films even earlier, supports the feminist case and just needs social and political argument to take it on to feminism. The sequel, that a liberated female audience would enjoy watching suffering much less, probably holds true for cinema of the past twenty years. They don’t make a weepie like they used to.
The tradition of marketing folklore would also attribute feminine interest to films with lots of dancing and films with expensive clothes, among others. ‘Dolls’ is glamorous throughout, it has a kind of glaze like a TV screen. Is this like the layer of numbness and no-contact which barbiturates lend to someone’s mood? Perhaps. Films had to be as affluent and glamorous as advertisements in order to avoid seeming dowdy by comparison with them. Film sets were carefully set out to be like advertisements. There was a line also of films that showed poverty and poor homes, but Dolls is quite rigorously at the affluent, ad-imitating, end of the spectrum. Its look is like a shop window in an up-market store, and the actresses look like mannequins.
Bugliosi gave attention to the possibility that, after members of the Family killed Sharon Tate in her home, they took some of her clothes and wore them in the squalor of the derelict ranches where they lived. This was never proved. Family economics did not allow for young women to go shopping for clothes (gun acquisition was higher up the list of priorities). Drawing a link between the critical fiction of ‘Valley of the Dolls’ and the deluded reality of the murder of Sharon Tate is always doubtful. But drugs are a link – the Manson thing would not have happened without copious amounts of LSD, and Susann’s novel gives a central role to barbiturates. So, both stories are about heedless over-consumption of laboratory-made drugs.
Roger Ebert said in his review “Some moments persist in the memory, however. The scene in which Sharon Tate does her bust exercises, and most particularly the dialog at the end of that scene, should be preserved in permanent form so future historians can see that Hollywood was not only capable of vulgarity, but was also capable of the most offensive and appalling vulgarity ever thrown up by any civilization. I can't believe that scene. I really can't.” Also “As for the young men in the cast: They all apparently go to the same barber and tailor, and their mothers must all have been frightened by Robert Cummings. I couldn't tell them apart.“ A feature of women’s films is that the men are well-groomed but featureless, like dolls. In scenes, their dialogue is colourless because it has not been the subject of intense fantasy, whereas the women’s dialogue is striking and memorable because it is the product of long fantasy and so speaks to a level of fantasy and role-playing in the audience. Vanity Fair spoke to actress Lee Grant, 40 years on: “Chimed in Grant, “It’s the best, funniest, worst movie ever made.” [Patty] “Duke, in interviews, credited the gay community’s championing of the film as the primary reason for its longevity.“ I don’t know if it works as a gay film (if you imagine the women as gay men?), but the reasons it doesn’t work as a feminist film are three. First, it is full of malevolent female authority figures. (Steinberg, the senior secretary at the theatrical lawyers where the film starts, is benign.) There is no space for experience reflecting on gender inequality because the older women are unilaterally dedicated to controlling and exploiting other people. Secondly, men aren’t blamed for anything. They don’t even behave badly. We never see any scene that shows a doctor prescribing the barbiturates (or the “uppers”) or being taken to task for their decisions in facilitating addiction. Third, the conception is intensely narcissistic. The events arrive as Destiny and this leaves no space for relating them to a social system, which could be changed and which was in fact changing with incredible rapidity in the twenty years up to 1980. Nobody ever asks why. I am not saying that nobody can ever get rich, but the stardom of all three characters removes them from comparison with 140 million or so American women and blocks out any thoughts about the medical arguments against tranquillisers or about patriarchy. In an article of reminiscences, Michael Korda reported Susann as saying to him that the reason for making the characters suffer so much was that they were rich and went to great parties and met many interesting people, and the readers of her book would only tolerate this if they suffered and suffered. So part of the reason why there is no feminist analysis in the book is that it is founded on class resentment. The book is directed by a sort of dissolved left-wing sensibility with the texture of warm ice-cream. I am not sure I buy this, or at least I think that the formula of "extensive suffering in expensive clothes" works for most women's pics and not for this reason. This re-opens the question: why do female lead characters in women's pictures have to suffer. (We could start by looking at pictures aimed at women which don't have suffering. Mitchell Leisen specialised in this kind of film.)

Richard Quine’s “Sex and the Single Girl” (1964) is an obvious comparison to Dolls. (No, haven’t seen this one.) It has quite different views of the priorities of ‘career girls’ and as this suggests Dolls embodies Forties values more accurately – in the novel, the events run from about 1945 to 1965, and the film has compressed this (to avoid showing their fab young actresses ageing). It may be that a best-seller has to express conservative social values in order to achieve comfort and a fantasy state. You aren’t meant to stop thinking about the characters and start thinking about social issues.
The Internet says that Judy Garland was hired to play the “Helen Lawson” character (the brutal musical star). Note that one of the central characters is a singing star whose life goes off the rails because she is dependent on uppers and downers to get through the day. The Net says that Garland was fired or resigned, also that Robson made her wait until 4 pm before doing her scenes and she was drunk by that time (whereas she was sober at 8 am). The story that Garland was fired for alcoholism from a film largely about the story of Garland’s pill and alcohol dependency sounds too good to be true. The story that Robson set her up to get fired makes sense, and again the film could have failed for being too real if you had had a real-life victim of pills in the middle of it.
What are you left with if you remove the suffering? I would say “nothing”, but the real answer would be “a musical about shopping”. That again translates as “an advertisement with music”. You even get this inside the film, with the “Gillian Girl” campaign. Neely catches her husband in the swimming pool with a naked girl. This would be a lot more moving if they were living in some house that didn’t even have a swimming pool. I was disappointed with the film, and if it isn’t moving part of the reason is the glaze of affluence which covers it. Robson arranges the story very lucidly and with great attention to variety and pacing. Yet the story drags. What the look of the film reminds me of, now, is an expensive department store in Nottingham. Every object is tasteful yet luxurious. The space welcomes you in. Yet it’s too shiny to be home. Was Robson wrong? The department store is planned to lure women into a state of mind where they spend money on largely unnecessary objects. If it works in the department store, it probably works in the film. The film sells an object, itself. If he had gone for a more documentary feel, the film probably would have more emotional impact, but it might have lost 90% of its audience. I think the affluence is what suppresses the emotional impact of the events. Jennifer kills herself with an overdose in the Bel Air Carlton hotel. Tate acts the scene leading up to coma (and release?), entering the snow at the end of the valley, beautifully. She had a very expressive face. But, in the Bel Air Carlton? "She learnt that she had advanced Hollywood's Disease while piloting her private helicopter to Chamonix wearing white Dior salopettes." The film is prissy and affluent, not vulgar.
The pattern for women’s pics is to focus on “promo videos”, fairly short scenes which are intensely emotional and egoistic, which break inhibitions, abandon reason, and which are designed for frequent re-living in fantasy form. (Clothes and grooming are also vital.) The sequence where a very young Neely O’Hara in rehearsal makes cynical theatre workers stop work and be knocked out, and where the big star insists that she gets fired because she is going to steal the show, would be an example. These scenes tend to re-appear in many different films, and as this would suggest women’s pics tend to lack narrative logic, the objective framework is neglected while effort goes into the ‘video clips’. Fantasies are much briefer than feature films. If ‘Valley of the Dolls’ out-sold every other women’s pic of the Sixties, it is partly because its objective framework is so uncompromised. Mark Robson deserves credit for this. You have the emotive scenes, but the film picks itself up and moves in after each one.
Sarris says “Among Val Lewton alumni, he [Robert Wise] occupies a middle position between Jacques Tourneur at the top and Mark Robson at the bottom”. This goes back to about 1942 when the studio wanted a releasable edit of “The Magnificent Ambersons” and they got people who had edited “Kane”, Robert Wise and Mark Robson, to do this. Welles had skipped town and wasn’t going to do the work. If you subscribe to the “auteur” theory you automatically believe that the editors were betraying Welles and that “Ambersons” was a great film until it was edited, not turgid, dimensionless, and anti-climactic like the version we actually have. So you despise Mark Robson, as part of club membership. Sarris doesn't even give him an article of his own. Actually if he did “Peyton Place” and “Dolls” he was making “women’s pics” and so unacceptable to auteur critics in the first place. Thomson says of him “Robson has oscillated between styles and genres. He indulged in a spurious, Kramerian realism […] but, without missing a step, he abandoned that for the most calculating sentimentality […] or a special taste for best-seller vulgarity.” This is typical of what “serious” film historians say about directors of women’s pictures. The Criterion film website says "he was often more than competent", which is not kind. Having just watched the film, I don’t want to go out to bat for Robson. Allegedly Jacqueline Susann told him the film was shit, and I find this story easy to believe. I want to re-evaluate women’s pictures but not by denying their flaws. They were free of macho stupidity, but that isn’t quite enough. I am not persuaded that either Peyton Place or Valley is vulgar. I have seen very few of Robson's 34 films but at least I am willing to watch. The 1957 film 'Peyton Place' gave rise to a TV series with Dorothy Malone – according to the stories around Malone's obituary in 2018, it was the first TV soap opera, the founding moment. Both 'Peyton Place' and 'Dolls' were filmings of huge best-sellers by women writers. Robson could not become the auteur of these stories that everyone knew, he could only stage them. 'Peyton Place', the film, is also pre-feminist.
It would be nice to say that since the advent of feminism massive barbiturate prescription has disappeared and the social problems of the ‘Valium Estate’ and other depressed areas have been solved by collective action. I am doubtful about this and suspect it is more that barbiturates have ceased to be news and don’t get novels written about them. Fashions in anxiety-suppressants have changed.
I see that even if Susan Hayward had had 30 years in Hollywood prior to ‘Dolls’ (was she really only 19 in 1937?), I haven’t seen any of her films except Dolls (and Nicholas Ray’s rodeo film). She plays the leathery star of musicals who fires Neely O’Hara, at the start of the picture, for being too talented. At the end of the film, O’Hara is a star and fires a young soubrette for being too talented. When she does this, her agent/boyfriend walks out, it’s a moral gesture. So, two malevolent female authority figures, but that isn’t even the full count. I actually wrote about “women’s pics” in the Eighties sometime, but I realise that even now I just haven’t covered the ground, I would have to watch hundreds of films to develop a history of the genre.
Sarris’ index of significant American films (at the back of American Cinema) has about 5000 titles but not Valley of the Dolls. Forty-two years ago, I was getting interested in film history and acquiring a huge list of films I wanted to see, from the books I was reading (by David Thomson, more than anyone). Having watched a thousand of them now (probably a lot more than that), I can’t take the project any further. Moving to Nottingham in 2005 put an end to it. Retiring has reduced my disposable income to poverty levels. But I can scarf up cheap DVDs from a stall in Arnold Market. I can buy occasional DVDs on-line – ‘Advise and Consent’ followed by ‘Valley of the Dolls’, in the past few months. Maybe I can get onto some John M Stahl as years go on.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Four Red Parts

This will only make sense if you are familiar with an essay I published on-line in a magazine called 'Junction Box'. The essay concerns the interpretation of a phrase "(in all the) four red parts of the world" which is common in 20th C Scottish Gaelic.

An essay on ‘cosmology’ of the Celts (by Gearoid MacEoin) picks up a phrase from the huge mediaeval (10th C) Irish poem Saltair na Rann: fo bith ce cethairchair gle
This is translated as “to this world foursquare bright’.
This is clearly the forerunner of ‘ceithir ranna ruadh an domhain’. The lexical choices have changed but the shape of the phrase is clearly the same. The phrase has reproduced itself and retained its shape. As I suggested, the colour adjective belongs with world and not with parts.

It is very interesting that ‘gle’ [bright] has been replaced by ‘ruadh’. This suggests that the primary meaning is “perfect” or “magnificent” and that the ‘red’ quality is secondary.  ‘ce gle’ is quite like ‘bely svet’.
I think that “bith” and “ce” both mean “world”, so the phrasing is not wholly clear to me. The “-chair” (in ‘four-sided) means “edge, border”. The square element probably means 'perfection', as in the name Petroc (= four[sided]) which has been explained as meaning "perfect". (I can't remember where I saw this gloss.) Petroc was a 6th century saint from South Wales. Square seems a virtuous quality and you have to ask why fields or houses are often square (when they could be any shape). The world should be four-sided like fields or houses.

There is so much Gaelic that I don't know. I shouldn't have started.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Affluence, Welfare, and Fine Words:
General Introduction

December 2017 

Components of Affluence, Welfare, and Fine Words
 Centre and Periphery in Modern British Poetry (Liverpool University Press, 2005); The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry (Salt, 2003); Legends of the Warring Clans: The Poetry Scene in the 90s (published on the Internet at; Origins of the Underground (Salt, 2006); Fulfilling the Silent Rules (due out in 2018); The Council of Heresy (Shearsman, 2009); The Long 1950s (Shearsman, 2012). Scene is part of the project. It just didn’t go through the delays attendant on book publication.

[1] Justification

I wrote a seven-part work on British poetry 1960-97 to which I gave the overall title of 'Affluence, welfare, and fine words'. It took me 17 years. The question is why anyone would set out to do that.

There were two stimulating factors at the beginning. First, British poetry was utterly marginalised in the books market. A celebrated survey (I really don't have the source for this any more, but it was in the early 90s) showed that poetry accounted for 1% of the books being sold, and that within the poetry sales 96% was of dead poets and almost all the remaining 4% was either Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney. (Hughes was still alive at this point.) Further, while British attention was so wholly directed at the past, the attention everywhere else welcomed dead British poets, but for the present era was exclusively interested in American poetry. Information (inaccurate no doubt) suggested that the only university outside Britain to take an enthusiastic interest in modern British poetry was Salzburg. The pattern of publication could give the impression, even unconsciously, that poetry in Britain had stopped in around 1945 and the Spirit had flitted across the Atlantic, where the most eminent avant garde and the most eminent kitsch writers abounded. Secondly, I was irritated that the available accounts of British poetry excluded the innovative sector, which was where most of the good poetry was to be found. In this context, I could suppose that there was a mass of material which no one but me was going to write about. It also followed, unfortunately, that there would be almost no market for such books – the subject was already dead before I began to write about it. I could see that a long work which said everything was wonderful would be simply written off as ‘loyal but incredible’. So, the whole work had to be critical and careful in order to raise the reputations of the people it praised. In the end, it is still true that there are vast numbers of poets whom I never read and quite a large number of poets whom I read but found were boring and unsuccessful.

The claim is likely to be made that informed opinion disagrees with me about point A or point B – but there is no printed source of this informed opinion. This is the point of the project – to drain off opinion from the air and create a printed, storable source for the reference of those interested. It is an era of primitive accumulation – the capturing of primary evidence and storage of it in a large and public collection. Precise evaluation will have to come later.

The ground rules are close to a work like Lucie-Smith’s anthology, British Poetry Since 1945 (Penguin, 1970). I suppose 1970 was a golden moment before the really bitter polarisation took hold. It shouldn’t be so hard to be that broad-minded. I learnt so much from his anthology. Lucie-Smith wasn't acting as the lawyer trying to win a suit (for privileges) for anyone. He knew that one sign of intelligence was the ability to deal with different subjects adequately and without any lag. Lucie-Smith’s notes on each poet in his classic anthology also comment on the readers, on the ideas of taste which are pleased by each kind of poem, and the fans who gather around it. I never get into this, but it is interesting information. Poets don’t go into those verbal spaces completely alone.
I can’t set up an anthology like Lucie-Smith’s, but I can include some quoted poetry. This will serve as a reality check – the prose can be checked against the poetry.

The ruin of capital o the perfect
Indicators liquid spirals at the
Dock's edge decorative
Cranes high colonnades white stone
Throwing off snow or rain the
Roof mask's orbed surfaces
Cornice of the pediment
Contours and radius
Index futures burning into the
Air thick with ghosts you
Laboured and failed
Forgot your names
Froze at the railings on a straw sack

(John Seed, from ‘Decision and Visibility’)
This doesn’t bear out any argument. It’s pretty good though.

(2) territoriality
There is a state of dispute where one faction regards cultural achievements by someone from another faction as damaging and annoying. So, one cultural manager described me as “the opposition” – this would imply that where he wins, I lose, and wherever I win, he loses. I just can’t accept this. Where someone writes good poetry, we all win. The struggle for land is just anti-cultural and makes other endeavour impossible.
Several of the most significant movements in the poetic realm have been motivated to destroy the legitimacy of other groups of poets and seize their resources. This exploited a notion of territory and ownership which everyone understands but which is probably quite illegitimate in the realm of culture. It is based on a metaphor of space where whatever space someone else occupies is denied to you. I much prefer an opposite metaphor whereby cultural space is infinite, and this is the condition of culture.

For me territoriality is like cold food. If you let any dish cool for an hour, it will be cold. But you can take measures against this – you eat the food when it is hot. Territoriality is always in the offing, but it is quite easy to avoid its effects. Poets will always cluster around anthologies and argue about who got included and who didn’t, but this is not a productive discourse. The work is immense because if it had been mense a vital quality would have been lost.
Recording the artistic achievements of a large number of poets from a wide range of different stylistic groups is an effective way of de-legitimising territoriality.

My bird-wrung youth began with the quick naked
voice in the morning, the crooked calling,
and closed in the quiet wave of the falling
wing, dropping down like an eyelid –
O syringing liquid
song on the bough of flight and at night, light failing,
the nested
kiss of the breasted

one floating out to sleep in a cup of colours:
wren's flit and dimple, the shadowy wing of the curlew
spent between stone and fern in the hollow,
the barn-raftered swallow and far at sea the rider
gull on the billow
all night, all night kept sleep till steeply
the pillow
threw morning cockcrow

up in a column of straw and blood.
(Patrick Anderson, from ‘My Bird-Wrung Youth’, in The Colour as Naked, 1953)
Anderson wrote some New Romantic poems and is one of quite a few poets who has been erased from the records. Do we want to forget poems like this? Just to be clear – the volume of work coming out greatly exceeded, probably already in the Sixties, the needs of the retail sector. I am not expecting the market to take everything on, in a bonanza. But a prose work can remember everything, and this memory has its uses. The prose is boundless because in that condition people stop having territorial feelings. Abundance makes artistic feelings possible.

[3] history of composition
I began the work in December 1992, when I was asked to write an article for a magazine about recent British poetry. The article never got published, but it sucked me into a project. At that time there were huge gaps in my knowledge of the period, so it was inappropriate for me to undertake a survey. Research had to come first. In 1992, I thought it was a promising idea. I didn’t realise how inadequate the guides were, and how hard it was going to be to locate the good poets from thousands publishing in the period. I was grossly over-optimistic. I also thought that I would get at least one book out within 5 years. The first book came out in 2003 – year eleven of the project. I had given up in about 1999 but kept coming back for various reasons. 17 years after starting, I made the last neurotic adjustment to the last paragraph. I can look back on it. The project covers 140 individual poets, and this suggests the limits to any coherence: the artistic achievement is scattered over a huge spectrum in which the separate clusters have nothing to do with each other. The more patterned the account, the less faithful it can be to this disparate data. So, I don't have a grand scheme. The scheme is Britain, poetry, a period (1960 to 97). That's it.

I wonder sometimes about consistency. The campaign of 2005-9 was different from the campaign of 1992-6, let's say. I began by emphasizing separation and moved on to long for unity.

The work on mainstream poets which became The Long 1950s was an afterthought, really. That book was written up in about 2009-11, although the search pattern began in about 2003.

The reason the work stops at 1997 is simply that all the work was predicated on a physical situation that I was unemployed and had nothing else to do all day and couldn’t afford to go anywhere. When I got a job, in 1997, that stopped. Shortly after that, I gave up being editor of a poetry magazine and so the flow of review copies stopped. Those two things together ended an era. In the following years, I was busy with the day job and with writing up the results of all that primary reading. I didn’t also gobble up all the new books coming out. Drawing a deep breath, I can say that the work would have had a more integral and simple design if it had simply been about the war between the conservatives and the innovators of the 1960s and 1970s, focussed on its focal point and ending with the evaporation of that war. The polarisation of the era 1968-79 (especially) wore out slowly and we can take 1990, not wholly arbitrarily, as the moment when a different paradigm became dominant and the numerous people still preoccupied with the underground-mainstream split can be defined as conservative rather than dominant. I am taking the advent of John Major as the end of the national nervous breakdown (described elsewhere) and the return to a more coherent society. What I see is that, the further back in time we go, the more satisfactory and stable is the historical account which I write. Drawing the terminal line further forward, into 2000 or 2005 for example, is thus rather unattractive.

(3a) So, the project took 20 years, including aftermaths. 140 poets in 240 months. But I knew about at least 50 of them before I even started. So, I was discovering one new “good poet” roughly every three months. The rest of the work was reading poets I didn’t even want to write about. Finding a new poet is the exciting part. But my notebooks read more like “Another year’s digging. Didn’t find anything this year.” Life would be more full of excitement if I didn’t say “show me. show me. show me.” all the time. I spent more time getting rid of material than I did adding material.

 (4) inclusiveness

Jonathan Barker’s bibliography (for the British Council) lists 699 British poets (for 1970 to 1995). The specialised poetry world has dwelt on the exclusion line– an area which I find very uninteresting.  Poets talk about the exclusion/inclusion line of different products every day, it is a verbal habit which consciousness has vacated. The behaviour story of loyalty and accusations of betrayal was switched on.
Any perimeter line implies an outside. In this case, it is the line in the sand where my mule dropped dead of thirst and I had to turn back. Not all the wilderness is sublime. Some is, well, home to bones and scorpions. What about the rest of the 700? Well, nothing really. They will write me off as a bastard and that's all. The extremely large number of talented poets in this era is a bad thing for any individual poet, hidden behind the excess of data, but is wholly a good thing for the reader
The coherence and impetus of the work depend on a limited focus. The focus corresponds with my taste – because I wrote it. It needs a frame to make its edges visible. So, the poets concerned were British, they were still writing after 1960, they published something significant before 1997, they were artistically interesting. Even more, they had to be poets I had heard of and read. There was another rule. I didn’t want to write about people who had been written about hundreds of times before. So poets included in the 1960 edition of Kenneth Allott’s Contemporary Poetry don’t get into the project. (I broke this rule, in the end.)

I left out simple poets because you can’t write significant prose about something which doesn’t want seriousness and can only suffer from close scrutiny. I have left out a number of poets favoured by editors over the years, where I don’t find their work interesting. I read a lot of boring poetry but I don’t then have to write about it.
Although there is also a spectrum of different responses to each or any text, I have not covered this potential space. I photograph everything from one point of view, mine. The data that could be involved in explaining the diversity of the market is too great, and anyway the drive of the whole thing is the look-you-in-the-eye full-on presence of me stating something I believe in.

Inclusiveness is irritating. I was chatting to another poet from Nottingham (that cuts it down a bit!) who was amazed that I’d included Jo Shapcott. This is where I feel I do better than any other critic– that I like more poets than anyone else gets around to. If you don't want to read about the wider spectrum then you will not enjoy the book. It is very inclusive. Just after that, I saw a copy of Peter Yates’ 1943 volume The Motionless Dancer on a stall and snatched it up. Surely the literary world needs someone who knows who Peter Yates was and who can recognise and cherish his unique virtues. The work goes back before 1960 at a number of points – and includes 20 or so poets who were not active after 1960. This was unnecessary, but it improved the design of various sections to widen the view slightly. I was happy to get the names of Lynette Roberts and Joseph Gordon Macleod into the picture. As it happens I never mention Yates in the work, anywhere.

(5) Numbers
I couldn’t find a reliable series of numbers for the whole period 1960-97, but various patches of good date allowed an extrapolation to a total count of 28,000 titles of new poetry for the entire period. Another extrapolation gives us a count of 6000 poets who composed these volumes, although it could easily be more. Fairly obviously, a book about 140 poets is only scratching the surface of this awesomely total figure. It is arguable that the work on genres (in The Long 1950s) allows indirect descriptions of the work of many other people, through evocation of styles which they use.

Did I read every book? no. I relied on an information network which brought titles to my attention. My view was conditioned by anthologies and magazines but can’t really go beyond this to get “the total picture”. The total picture of 6000 poets is simply not visible, there is no-one who can look at it. So, my view is wide but it leaves everyone out whom it leaves out.
If you use a label like “gatekeepers” for the people who put anthologies and magazines together, it becomes obvious that the market of reputation is significantly influenced by highly educated people who talk to each other a lot, and that this organic structure lays itself open to a counter-thesis in which there would be a counter-elite, and this would shine light into the blind spots of the existing crew. But this is theoretical. I found 145 poets whose work I like and I am doubtful about finding any others, or especially about the process of reading bad poetry to search for good poetry.
6000 poets. This is a regime of abundance. It is hardly surprising that the equipment for assessing, talking up, assimilating and praising poetry didn’t keep up. This in fact is why I wrote a seven-volume work, trying to make public taste develop. What I have written is a revisionist and original view, within limits. Any weaknesses of the “primary response agents” apply to me as well. To get why primary readers miss the quality of unpublished poetry, you have to grasp the state of saturation and overload which editors dwell in. Editors who have no curiosity don’t get overloaded, editors who are still curious look at stacks of hopeful scripts and get overloaded. They get tired, they get disillusioned, their reactions are blunted by reading bad poems, with their crass and loud gestures. They see the same effects many times repeated. Their nerves get worn down. This is why good scripts get missed. It is not a mystery. I have done better by taking more time about it. But generally I was dealing with published poetry, so the artistic insights of the poet and the publisher came first and only had to follow their reasoning. Not so hard.
I seem to have spent my life hanging around second-hand bookshops and leafing through little magazines to find reviews pointing to forgotten poets. I am looking at a book published by Oxford University Press in 1962. (It is by Robin Skelton and it is no good, bury it again.) The back jacket has a list of OUP poets. Christopher Hassall. OK, I haven’t read much of his poetry but I am happy to ignore it. Wrote some poetic dramas and was allegedly Ivor Novello’s boy-friend. Quentin Stevenson? Who is that? I have never heard of him.

open to light, shadows spin
and whirr resonantly, as tongue
unhooks pendulum motes and
claws beamed clepsydra,

drive springs and spring-drives rhythmically,
forcing fusee's final jolting breath.
everything rests, a spell
girds ticking again,

– flea's incisors, wing of bat, chrysalis grains –,
chattering pinions are covertly silenced,
finally, anchor escapement disintegrates,
abracadabra: all disappears.

only a face is left: alabaster,
glass and paper

(Vittoria Vaughan, from 'The Clocks of Kitezh')

I don’t think this is part of any argument. It’s pretty good though. Not sure her book (The Mummery Preserver) got any reviews. Lots of books get missed. Kitezh is a city sunken beneath the waters in Russian folklore. It was known for its bells that rang underwater – Vittoria has shifted the theme to clocks, and evidently the bells could not ring at the right time unless there were clocks.

skipping along the happy surface
so you have it now to hand and
written down in your feather gloves
to bias nature's first penetrating
self-sustaining auto-erotic rule/that begins
absorbing the soft metallic impression
formed here as the imperfected gossamer of your
dress as a leaf drifts from a bird's nest and
the bird that also sweetly falls here
silent as the blown up image reflects
in damp light shows him howling while he recalls
how each job centres on escape pods little
beans flung across empty tables

(Dan Lane, from ‘Acetatae’)
This is great, but again the industry gave it the go-by – and I only briefly mentioned Lane in my book.

 (6) blind quadrants
Around 2000 I had a mass of material, wasn't writing any more, and had great frustration at not being able to get this material published. The process of turning it into books involved finding designs to fit around the primary material and its scores of separate poets, and the books emerged out of organising the stockpiled material into arguments. So most of the time after 1997 I was stitching together the material I had amassed during 1992-7.
But there was a major exception to that. The original campaign was driven by a sense of neglect, so I got excited by rejected and misunderstood poets, who tend to cluster together in a few striking groups. After establishing who the important poets (of the 60s and 70s) had been, I wished to reunify the realm of poetry in order to give the owners something to win. So later, and especially in the run-off period of 2005 on, I moved over to anti-balkanisation as the core imperative. This meant that I personally had to reverse my drives and search for good conventional poets. So it followed that I had to search through stacks of work by conventional poets and try to find ones I liked, because these were going to be my personal victories and be the demonstration that you could unlearn inveterate habits and move into the quadrant where you had been blind.
Almost without exception, poets are eager to explain a critic’s dislike of their work as a character defect. This could be an interesting area, but it is too flooded with infantile resentment. I am content to describe work which leaves me bored and frustrated as being tedious and frustrating.
The notion of blind quadrants and of raiding into the blind quadrants may sound deeply unsympathetic, and quite unlike the following your secret inclinations which is basic to poetry reading. It was a policy I developed because I got so fed up with the divisions in the poetry world, and saw that I had to resist them consciously, even if the effect of the unconscious drives of all the players in the aggregate was to maintain division and to develop new ones. There was also the simple consumerist supposition that, if you spend 20 years scarfing up cultural pleasure objects from the same patch of territory, then you tend to graze it down, and there are benefits to jumping over the fence and making off into what is for you an unexplored hinterland.

 (7)  unshared backgrounds
Although poetry is indeterminate, the power of shared conventions means that for the target audience it is significantly less indeterminate. Clearly the role of the critic is at least partly to make this knowledge available to outsiders and aliens. I was embarrassed when trying to create a list of sources, because although it’s everywhere, and its working parts were chosen because they are so readily available, almost none of the information came from books. It came from emotional identification with other people who understood poetry, from sharing in a big linguistic feeling that raised me 80 feet in the air. It's easy to say, "if you'd sat there in the audience listening to X read it you would KNOW what it was about”, but this ignores the fact that nothing was made explicit in that hall and people didn't state in words what they were feeling. Also, that some people were there without getting any of the vibe, the big group feeling. None of this stuff came from books but still books are soaking with it, the big shared things are visible in hundreds and thousands of artefacts. So we are faced with this darkened space of the implicit. It's like a million lines of software which include a few mistakes. There is no written source for this software, and no notation, but if you read 300 books of poetry from this era then you probably have the context for the 301st. No poem ever states explicitly the energy it draws on, which seems to be very big when you’re inside it and then to be fine to the point of non-existence when you can’t find it.

The things you are meant to feel are obvious if you read enough poetry, but it's very difficult to make them explicit once you have got them. I feel I know when a poet of my moment uses symbols that I know what the symbols mean and I can follow the manipulation without dropping the parts or losing my way. This is unprovable. Naturally, there is no reference hall where the things that the symbols mean, and the schemes they are organised by, are stored, to resolve arguments perhaps. The feeling of understanding what everyone else is feeling is not tied to objects or measures.
This feeling of symbolic-linguistic belonging is part of the reason for stopping. I have perfect pitch for a certain period of British poetry, where I exist as a first-person actor. The borders of this period are hard to demarcate. I suspect it all tapers off as we slide towards the year 2000.

 (8) blame

There is a memorable 1958 statement by Lindsay Anderson: “It is impossible to work on the cinema […] without reference to the system within which films are produced, and once that reference is made, it is impossible not to consider the basis of the system, the way it has grown, the motives which sustain it, and the interests that it serves.” It is tempting to analyse the history of poetry in terms of power, money, alliance. I have not generally done this. Films (especially Fifties films) are based on big amounts of capital paid out before any revenue comes in at all. This is a basis for monopoly and for the exclusion of rebels (which Anderson was in the Fifties). This hardly applies to poetry. It’s easy to print books and the cash nexus is tied to the retail world. Problems are connected either to not providing a commodity which people want or to failures in the area of publicity and taste formation. The views of the stockers, the people who decide which books get onto the shelves of bookshops, are key “silent rules”.

One version of the period 1960-97 is that it left behind a kind of Greek National Debt, as all the poets who didn’t get recognition own debt certificates which amount to a huge legacy, and the historian has to pay off this debt. This is a question so complex that I can’t attempt to answer it. This is a worthwhile moment to dwell on – presumably the realm of amenable discourse is surrounded on every side by other regions of complexity and doubt.

Poets habitually blame editors and reviewers for everything that doesn’t happen. Editors quite often blame the retail sector. And the retail sector blames the market – the numerous, though not vastly numerous, band of people who buy and read poetry. My inclination is to declare the market innocent and blame the poets. I want to hear more people apologising for producing a book that nobody bought, and fewer moaning about how underrated they are. Maybe no-one is underrated.
We hear a lot of analyses of how “my poetry was fabulous – nobody published it – evil editors stole my career – I am collecting evidence of their guilt”, which could generally be rewritten as “I wrote crap poetry – it never got published and did not waste large amounts of publisher’s funds – editors reacted brilliantly – better books got into the shops and tempted the fortunate reader.” It is literally true that saying no to poor books is one of the key functions of editors. I really have difficulty in concluding that the people who committed themselves to poetry, who like poetry and like poets, who ignore other career possibilities, who read poetry for pleasure and spend their spare time talking about it, are also the villains who destroy poetry. This does not roll.

The implication of debt is counterpart fulfilment. Imagine that the poets are ten times as popular as they are. The reader has to deliver 10 times as much time. And 10 times as much admiration. Claiming these things as rights abridges the freedom of the reader. This is ethically wrong, but more significantly it is impractical. No-one has to surrender their time to serve the emotional needs of artists. This whole set of relationships flips if you start to view things from the point of view of the readers and of the gatekeepers. If nobody owns the debt, it isn’t a debt.

Much as I like Anderson’s style of decisive exposure of the weakness of capitalist business arrangements for art (which collapsed in the 1970s), it now seems out of date. I don’t think ownership and capital flows get you anywhere with poetry. Films are made of money, poems aren’t. Most poetry books weren’t even expected to break even, and most people directly involved in publishing poetry are not trying to make money or to maximise sales. Poetry is really the “night side” of capitalism, a sort of refuge where people go to get away from battering by commerce and business in their daily lives. Unless you accept that, you can’t understand anything about what happens. That reverse topography could imply passivity, but it is also a responsibility to live up to.

 (9) ideoles

I was fired up at one point to identify the cultural field underlying shared aesthetic experiences. But I lost interest in this because thinking about 10 or 20 poets at once led to a diffuse afocal awareness, compared to the hot, unified, first-person, transient experience which is vital to reading poetry. Drinking the wine is more important than knowing about wine. I think the appeal of finding the unwritten rules connects with the early experience of sending poems to magazines who were never going to touch you and not knowing why the scripts kept coming back. It's great to know why. The knowledge is hard to reach, surpasses intuition, but is easy to overrate once you have it. Part of the problem is its fine structure. I don't think art politics is about the philosophical clash of Great Ideas, any more than national elections are. I think the scene runs, not on ideas, but on something smaller – ideoli, or ideoles. I see a dense root mat of tiny ideoles. So if A gives a destructive review of the event organised by B in a web magazine edited by C, this may actually be because C wants to take away B's funding, divert it to their own event, and trickle some of it towards A. This is genuine knowledge (if you can ever get the evidence, which is rare). But it's banal. I can't write a book about that. I think there is a large-scale structure as well, but it has very poor predictive value.

Poets like to think that “everything you know about me is wrong” (bending a line from The X-files). But, to write history, you have to get with the idea that “everything the professionals think about this poet is right”. If you're some outsider who doesn't get reviewed, the whole activity of people who decide who gets reviewed seems cruel and illegitimate. But, there we are, there is a whole cadre of people who arrange things. They have an operational knowledge which includes all the ideoles, which would include a dataset in which there is an entry, with data, for each poet, and they make things like magazines, publishers, live events, happen. So, your second book doesn't get reviewed and your third one doesn't get published. People discussed reviewing that book and said no. Someone paranoid thinks that the purpose of the database is to keep them out of sight. Paranoia is too usual on the scene to be ignored. Actually, paranoids have the most complete view of the mechanism of reputation. They see a million tendrils in every detail. The managers can look at the cards and read their face values; the poets live in a kind of cloud of emotions. But, wouldn't you rather have ten pages about the poets than ten pages about the organisers?

(10) Peter Fuller and the critique of modernism

One of the most significant cultural critics of our period was Peter Fuller.
A catchy phrase is the Box of Beautiful Things. Students at the RCA in the mid-50s were aware that the teachers on the illustrators course (mainly preparing people for work in advertising) had a “Box of beautiful things” which were suitable for making pictures of. The pictures would evoke desirable experiences and incite people to see goods as desirable and so to buy them. The students had a slogan about “burning the box of beautiful things”, an initial gesture before they went on to a career of brutality in glitzy ads stressing machines, guns, cars, financial power, speed, aggression, subservient women, etc. They were convinced that they had grasped the logic of capitalism much better than their teachers. Also in the radical period after 68, young people wanted to burn the box of beautiful things. Fuller was a student in 68 and was swept along in the whole Marxist thing as it surged at Cambridge and at western universities generally. Fond of critique, he began after 15 years or so to critique the neo-Marxist and avant garde thing. He began defending beautiful things. Worse, he began to ask artists to create them. He broke taboos of silence by identifying that parts of the new radical art were tendentiously negative, desensitised, justified by movements of fashion which had nothing to do with aesthetic pleasure and a lot to do with the investment of capital, vacuous, narcissistic, ludicrous in its view of society outside artists, grandiose, indifferent to detail and full of patches of blankness or undifferentiated repetition. He described all this as International Business Class Art. Fairly obviously, “radical” poetry shared these vices even if no rich people were interested and banks weren’t collecting the works.

I have an uneasy feeling that the ride of the New Right involves so many people and so much creativity that it has to be one of the major subjects of cultural history of a period, say, 1976 to 1992. The ride also had features of a collective delusion or addiction process.
Fuller moved to Suffolk and spent a lot of time looking at Suffolk churches, as symbols of intact and ripe art to set against modern hysteria. Someone else who went to Suffolk churches a lot was RF Langley:

White hedonism cut on blue
intelligence and laced
with silver anxiety. Bravo.
It braces milady's cortical
layer to take what could
have been trauma but now snugs
a bee in a comfort. While ants
silkily fidget and moderate
men press on, juddering,
grinning, being temperate
because of the price of beer.

Folds pack away; there is no crash.
Amongst the carnivorous thus and
thus and thus come two grey eyes
as you think, "Is it a comma's wings
make such a silky noise?" So the
grogram, the paragon, snarl. So
fighting for their ranges the
wolves forget the deer. Or they
would hunt them out. Peace.
Famine. In the border zones
the butterflies are all eyes.
(from ‘The Ecstasy Inventories’)
Some poems are beautiful things. But not all. (OK, it may have been Norfolk churches for Langley. All based on the Wool Staple.)

(14)  decline of humanism

So much of the new Marxist wave of Sixty-Eight meant, in the humanities departments, a vigorous attack on the emotional reactions of existing critics (redefined as “bourgeois”). So, I am writing about what happens as you are reading poetry. But the neo-Marxists have defined whatever you think or feel while reading poetry as illusory and ideologically damaged. So why read poetry?

There followed a line of self-exculpatory argument, along the lines of “my poetry is fabulous” “but X dislikes it” “I belong to an economically under-privileged group of some kind or other” “therefore X only dislikes my poetry because of his investment in the socio-economic power system which commands that people of low status should write bad poetry” “therefore X has no right to form judgments of my outstanding work”. I suspect this argument is wrong 99% of the time. It is simpler to conclude “I write crap poetry” “X dislikes my poetry because it is crap” “X is entitled to edit magazines, anthologies, readings series, etc. because he can tell good poetry from crap poetry”.

The sociological argument is problematic because it evacuates individual consciousness, the process that actually takes place while reading a poem. If personal reactions don’t matter, then you don’t need to pay attention to subtle qualities when writing about poetry. And you don’t need to empathise with characters you write about. You don’t need either to be introspective, you can ignore the fine details of your own reactions, because sociology is all that counts. It is not surprising that conventional scholars saw this as an attack on everything that mattered about literature. Actually, it was. There is a whole sector of anti-humanist poetry and a matching discourse around it.
I can see that there is a whole group of people who are willing to write in a bloodless way about poetry because they have complete contempt for poets and what they write: the loss of the core of the poetic experience is quite welcome to them. I think there has to be a balance between demolishing the results of subjectivity and demolishing the products of objectivity. I do not really believe in the supposed aggression of the interest groups: perhaps people are willing to attack my responses because I am male, heterosexual, middle-class, etc., but I am not convinced of it. Withdrawing into objectivity supposedly defuses the aggression, but I am not even sure it is there. I have great admiration for Cyril Connolly, who it seems to me was a connoisseur who wrote out of that connoisseurship and made no concessions to consensus or guilt. This was how it was in the 1920s or the 1940s. It was quite simple and we have to get back to it.

People already have freedom to judge. They like to defend this and dislike to give it up. It is part of the realm of subjectivity which business rationality erodes all the time. It has to survive in the realm of art. For the readers to retain their freedom, poets have to accept that their wish to be liked is not a God-given right, and that poems can be unsuccessful as well as successful. And critics have to accept that their assignments of justice and deserts can be unconvincing and are not simply acts which are indefeasible as soon as they are carried out.

I think one of the sinister changes in the cultural scene is the loss of belief in the artistic choices of gifted individuals and the attempt to move power into the hands either of committees or of bodies of regulations drawn up by committees. There is a collective, if covert, pressure to drain sensibility out of prose response, to hem it within the limits of what is merely objective and external. I have no time for this. If I lose the power to react subjectively, by this new enactment, then so also does the reader. Reading poetry thus becomes a pointless activity: an experience you cannot own based on a series of decisions you are not empowered to take.

(11) 140 individuals versus a unified work

Johan Cladders says in an interview ‘I wanted art to stand for itself. I always looked at art as the solitary activity of individuals who make works. I found it important to present these works as purely as possible, which was possible only in a solo presentation. I never thought much of exhibitions in which 20 individuals are presented with two or three works apiece. This does not provide a clear picture of an artist. The primary focus must be on works that represent an individual.’

This is a delicate area because I agree with Cladders and of course this means my project fails – it is certainly very much like an anthology. I believe there is a let-out – the solo experience is the book by a single poet. Of course, this has the purity which Cladders speaks of, and my work points to hundreds of solo volumes.

Each individual poet wants to be surrounded by anything but 100 other poets. But their patch comes to an end and you move on. What if the reader resents the switch, wants to stay with poet A? You try to smooth the transitions. The edit is sharp, the reader can't lag behind when you switch theme. It can all go wrong here. There has to be a continuing theme to avoid the effect of a wheelbarrow going down a flight of stone steps. The theme is like music, it governs time but might not do more than that. I dislike the solo concept because in England it has meant the complete exclusion of the talented poets in favour of bozos, and the key experiences for me were always finding someone who slipped through the bars momentarily and so became visible to me. Thus I discuss about 35 poets born in the 1940s, not 5.
There is no very obvious link between writing about 140-odd individual poets and producing seven books that (more? or less?) display themselves as coherent and even argued stretches of prose that describe, demonstrate or qualify arguments. The design of the separate books is overlaid on treatments of all those individuals and the line of juncture is, abidingly, arbitrary. I had great difficulty taking all that teeming material and constructing books out of it. It might have been better if I had just consented to 145 disconnected chapters or essays. It may be disappointing to the poets that the line does not stop, in adoration and satiation, with the pages on them, and decline, as if faced with a form of torture and exile, to move on from that culminating moment. Why should the poets tolerate the discursive thread that competes with their claims to totality and perfection? How can I bear, having reached those emotional places, to leave them again? How many poets want to share a book with another poet? With such a book, the forward movement must seem, most of the time, like a mistake; you get there and then you leave again. “I own this pattern and it is not there”: why should these autonomous beings be subdued to my notions of symmetry, repetition, asymmetry, fulfilment and violation?
To be successful, the project had to move through 140 separate and distinct positions. Like most of my fellow countrymen, I view intellectual system as tyranny ̶  the beating down of the witnesses. I have no thesis. How could the work acquire a coherence beyond the mutual dissent of these 140 strivingly original voices? It could not, and moved into a realm of confounded horizons – of volatility. I wanted to achieve passivity and receptivity. I was not interested in the megalomania of a museum director who insists that all of the works on display has something to say about a central project owned and signed by him.

(12) location of poems in Time; Time as variable

You find three stray jigsaw pieces under the carpet and try to determine from the visual information on their face which pictures they belong to. This is a menial task – but the idea that you can date a modern poem from small-scale and unconscious elements of style intrigued me and gave me a lead.
The information about dates of style change is of interest to record. It has only an indirect relation to the question of artistic quality. I was amused at the spectacle of so many critics who ignore real innovations and screen out the issue of innovation. Sometimes the minor changes relate to grander artistic intent – what we would call the higher level.
Of course, finding that someone has not taken up any points of modernity is a proxy for deciding whether they were simply imitating poems they studied at A-level rather than creating anything. Lack of distinctive features is a tell-tale for lethargy, lack of involvement with the unwritten poetic creation, disinclination to undertake any creative journey. If you had a poet with no original element, it seemed to follow that they had an absence of creativity. Writing about being out of date and conventional puts a certain pressure on the poets. Volume 1 had this atmosphere of pressure – bringing inhibited poets brutally up against their failure, really. I only wanted to do this once.

The Introduction to Luke Roberts’ outstanding book on Barry MacSweeney refers to two critics, Sheppard and Duncan, as writing about technique at the expense of empathy, dehumanising the poem in the story of a breach. “Duncan has more stridently framed this as a division between ‘conservatism’ and ‘left modernism’. Though this work has helped to legitimise the study of poets such as MacSweeney, it required the description of formal qualities of the writing at the expense of interpretation. The effect has been counter-intuitive: the poets are at risk of being reduced to a checklist of traits, making them suitable for critical inspection but leaving them lifeless.” That’s so bad. Like, who is this Andrew Duncan nudnik? So you sneak away from the tuned narratives of local narcissism, and write about technique as hero. Well, we all have our anti-humanist moments in life. Historical change does not come from the cyclical alternation of rival elites, but from small incremental shifts in modules of behaviour which belong to everyone. Explaining new techniques not only exposed the fact that some people were using old, old techniques but also soaked away the difficulty readers had in seeing intention in poems rather than opaque objecthood of language. I was trying to cover the entire landscape. Velocity was the key. Evidently writing an entire volume about one poet allows a richness of detail and a calm of contained time which is much more productive. The old “POEM = DATA + PROCEDURES” riff will get you a long way, but in the end, biography is there too  ̶  and human life is conducted by humans.

This is a crux. Everyone has a self but only one in 5000 (let’s say) has actually written significant and finished poems. I am not reviewing selves but poems. So the emphasis on technique helps us to get away from arguments about whether everyone has an equally interesting or equally well-formed self. If you find poems by 10,000 amateur poets, sent in (for example) for a competition with big cash prizes, they are not all equally valid. This is not because the selves are of inferior quality, but because the poems are of inferior quality. A history of poetry is about poems, not selves. Yet Roberts’ criticism resonates and does not lose conviction. Poetry is fundamentally about empathy and people involved in poetry are self-selected as empathetic because the meanings are only there for the empathetic. It is quite credible that many people who never read poetry just wouldn’t enjoy it if they did spend a week reading it. You have to empathise with the poet and the feelings in the poem, this is the secret. If you don’t do that it is not pleasurable.

the vast generic tumble
included a certain assumption
at regular intervals
traces of colour
minute increments of experience
jolted up an incline
into mexican night
every fragment rushed away
outline against the white
flashlight's beam
samples of her blood
back in the car reversed
the pure design
of some big deal

(Tom Raworth, from ‘Eternal Sections’)
I don’t think empathy is the key to poetry like this.

the box vibrates
& earthquakes out
into a wooden rose.
The wreaths are set,
wire twisted
round a martyr
head that hums
from heavenly crack
eyes slit upward.
(Robert Smith, from ‘Sonnets’)

Again, this does not obviously present an emotion. Why were the jigsaw pieces under the carpet? Undoubtedly because the cat knocked them off the table.
Sheppard is Robert Sheppard. His 3 books on modern British poetry are significant but do not answer the kind of question I pose. He is not interested in poems about feelings, in poets writing autobiographically, or in the state of mind of a reader while reading. All that comes out as bourgeois crap. This could mean that, while being empathetic is the character bias which defines the poetry audience, there is a branch line of poets who regard empathy as bad information and pointless. It could also follow that the market is not very interested by these poets.

(12a)   the song does change from time to time
A copy of Songs, Christopher Logue’s 1959 volume, turned up in a library sale in North Finchley just after I started the project. This one volume started a dozen themes. It cost me 50p. If Logue was doing numerous protest songs in 1959, then the protest thing didn’t come from Dylan in 1965. If he wrote a whole volume of song in the late Fifties, then the interest in simplicity (and sarcasm and surrealism) didn’t start with The Beatles. In the end, Left poetry was the most interesting line in the 1950s: Fuller, Script from Norway, Logue. This didn’t start the project, but it was the first moment when I had something which was really of interest and which I could run with. The key thing in academic poetry in that decade was Formalism, the return to regular verse and strict metres; but at the same time you have a vein of songs, which are also stanzaic, rhymed, metrical, and so on. Actually these two currents are part of the same thing.

So, I noticed that you could date a lot of modern poems even without knowing who wrote them or when they were published. I pursued this even though no other critic seemed interested. History is the history of what changed. This was unpopular, because poets wanted you to slip into the “unique timeless moment” of each poem, and the shift of lens to style history put any single poem out of focus.

Kenneth Rexroth wrote, in 1948: "In 1937 a change of taste, a reaction, set in. It was inconspicuous at first, but with the onset of universal war, most of the poetry being written in England was of a new and different kind. At the least it was a new manner, at the best it was a new vision." In 1937 the poetic world was much smaller. If you're looking at 1987, you might have to say that five things were changing at once. I do think Rexroth is right about how time works in poetry. This is something which transcends individuals. Although, some of the poets who emerged in 1932-7, in his version, were still publishing in the 1970s. My work evokes Time as the medium of shared signs in which poetry breathes, and whose passing silenced or lost works which detailed staging can now resurrect.

The need for the analysis of conservatism is partly that one wants to show the real poets breaking through the barriers of conventional writing in order to separate and travel out towards their unique destinations. Conventional writers are more trapped by the times they live in than ones who, by innovating, pay tribute to the New. There is a battle between opposite ideas which poets fight. The decision process makes freedom a tangible, experiential, thing. Focussing on this forces us to define the poet, to look at what is properly theirs and where they succeeded.
Innovative poetry of 1973 still works in 2017. So I would guess that conservative poetry of 1973 could work, then or now.

(13) poems about the government
There is not much modern poetry about what the government does. That kind of politics is there for everyone but hard to write poems about. The politics which features in poetry is therefore what concerns the family and the arrangements of everyday life. To see everyday life as transformable is the first step to writing modern and demanding poetry. This applies, only slightly less so, to an attempt to defend the order of everyday life when it is seen as under threat by English capitalism and bureaucracy. It was easy to see everyday life as being susceptible to change when, as during the 1960s, it was changing in a revolutionary way. The rate of change was hardly slowing down in the thirty years after the end of the 1960s.

Dealing green bills into black robes, (she sue the judge, Roy sue the furrier, then the ermine all dine with Roy) some other big chiffre a late hit as the ex-future Mrs Roy in a blanquette of arum, as the stars align the principles of manif you're indicted, you're invited to sip Old Fashioneds in Dubrovnik '62 with Cal who looks neat in cerise frock, sequinned shadow and liner. Cabochard is it drifting up from his knuckles? Givenchy? ("Cal you old biohazard!") organdy memory and void the papers around him—is he safe? As Delta Phi you mean! if the red slayer thinks he is slain, then Cal Lowell swims for the CIA… Roy burn, have you ever — standing next to Frank O'Hara and JJ Hunsecker at the Frick 18th June 1957, Roy see shit hanging from the walls — complete radiance of love, dirty red blotches at the corner of each eye, hardly moral at all now. Hospital patches each lid, but what makes him look reptilian is the brilliantine— hey Roy, beach-umbrella nothing, those are my shades.

(Kevin Nolan, from 'Five Last Words of Roy Cohn')
The last five words were, obviously “or have you ever been”.

 (16) Phallocentric etc.
A poem may connect to specific foregoing texts, but this can only be known if there are clear verbal echoes making the link back, and if the social context around key phrases or proposals supports a connection. For example, it may be reasonable to connect a poet to Marxism, with the proviso that this only works if the poet wants to relate to Marxism, as a conscious position rather than an unconscious one. I am doubtful that you can analyse a poet as being imperialist, capitalist, sexually normative, patriarchal, materialistic, White, etc., in the absence of direct statements in the poems showing that the various propositions or rules which compose those social ideologies are part of the poet’s verbal utterance. Treating a poet in a colonising way is a rehearsal for abolishing civil rights in some East German-style dictatorship.
A while ago, ‘phallocentric’ or ‘phallocratic’ were words you heard absolutely all the time. Today, they seem to have vanished from the cultural scene. This suggests that they were based on flawed insights right from the start. The issue is about claiming to see the invisible. It is legitimate to deal with what poets say, including the symbolic tier as well as what is explicit and logical, but not to deal with what they do not say, what is invented by an observer who claims to voice what the poet has never voiced and who gives the poet no rights at all. In describing poetry, priority should be given to what is visible and showable in the text. To do otherwise is to get into the category of the “me anthropologist – you native” review. States of mind may have preceded the poetic text, but they are by definition not there in the text. The fore-texts are not published and not accessible. Basing an argument on this evidence which cannot be examined is as weak as any kind of claim based on evidence that does not exist. A published poem may have had foregoing states. However, you have to read the evidence which exists and not the evidence which does not exist. The proposition that the network of possibilities is so poor that only one state could possibly have led to the form of words we see in black and white is surprising and unacceptable. Why should it be true that a finished poem has only one possible precursor state? If the Id is not bound by logic, it is not subject to deductions.
Another dubious technique is using texts not written by the poet as evidence for the “fore-texts” preceding the text you actually have. This may be valid in certain circumstances, but is likely to be just a pretext for claiming knowledge of a developmental process which the critic in fact does not own. One aspect of this is medicalisation of the artist – the artist becomes a “patient” whose inner life is reduced to “symptoms” of an imaginary illness to be read by critics using medical knowledge which in fact they do not have.
There is a Judith Kazantzis poem in which she watches a film called ‘Earthquake’:

Expensive, her throat
the white of a fattened column.
Alcoholic. Weeping. If she hadn’t started
The day in L.A. that way:
Evil would have stayed put
Underground. Envies unfold
From her soured silk. The city
Dives upward on her malice.
Scorned by Charlton husband, she
Rifts the land. And his
Towers crumple.
(in Touch Papers, 1982)

and claims that in the first half you see Ava Gardner being temperamental and in the second half an earthquake, and that the latter is brought about by Ava being so excitable. This is very funny. It may not be true. There is not much hope of throwing JK’s poems off balance in this way: she is too intelligent and too aware. I think the message was that much art was a derivative product from fantasies of supremacy, in which for example gays and women were shown (as part of the scenery) to be too emotional and childish to have political and economic power. Such fantasies are certainly common and they are a raw material for art.

I would speculate that the basis for being a credible poet in this time is that you were hip enough, about the unconscious tiers of meaning and the acts of breaking and entering with which people cracked open texts and inverted the conscious and unconscious tiers, to write poems that couldn't be subverted by the overbearing and over-educated. I think there are deep implications of this, that to get across that river you have to jettison or unlearn a lot. It may follow that modern poetry is cut off from the primitive and that it is distanced from cinema (let’s say) by this premonitory jump into the abstract and original, to get away from primary narcissism and unreconstructed fantasy. So, I think gay stereotypes or female stereotypes are not much to be found in modern poetry, and people who want to read texts subversively tend to peg out their pitches in other forms of art. I don't think that mainstream poetry is vulnerable to clever overturning in that way. Maybe there is a stratum of poetry which is not so substantiated or sophisticated, and which does not get published in credible magazines just for that reason. I do not recall any brilliant critical essay which reads a modern poet subversively (in the way that Kate Millett, for example, reads so many writers in Sexual Politics.)

(17) Stock footage and clichés
I tried to demarcate poetry by what it wasn’t – the clichés which no poet could write. I was aware that the contemporary virtually excluded {narrative, drama, repetitive metre, rhyme}, and that this negative unified a very wide spectrum of poets, who might seem in other ways to have nothing in common. So big a part of the rules of poetry in 1980 is “don’t do all these things which people were doing in 1910 1930 1960” etc., and such a big part of that is reacting against the patriotism of older poetry, the emotions poured into the Royal Navy and the Empire by poets like Newbolt, Noyes, Kipling, Watson. For many poets there is a big empty space which is full of the things which “I will not do because the last generation did them’. I thought of the learning phase of poetry as a course in which you learn 1000 things which are high-calory but which are unusable, used up. I looked for lists or catalogues of clichés, and came to works of propaganda about the British thing. I looked at the libraries of images of the Empire, in which this propaganda was rich, for example a cigarette card series 'Picturesque Peoples of the Empire'. The idea of image libraries led me to look at deposits of images, at the history of books and prints, of the knowledge of costumes and so on deployed in theatre. I became fascinated by the ideologists, the people who designed the Empire Exhibition in 1925, or the films and posters for government propaganda. I became so fascinated with this that I wrote it up and forgot about the 'index of clichés'. I followed it out to an interest in the objects in poetry and how a complex act of collecting and arranging objects might be a pre-verbal stage of a poem. This was useful for thinking about Pauline Stainer, where the initial choice of objects is obviously one of the most significant planes. A critic could study the objects as well as the words.

What is song
when the shroud
is left unlaced at the mouth
and the arctic tern
has a radio-transmitter
lashed with fuse-wire
to its leg?

What are footings?
Reindeer kneel
to the cull
in Eller Moss
was found the skeleton
of a stag
standing upon its feet

At the magician's house
I carve ivory noseplugs
in the shape of a bird
with inlaid eyes.
What is the spirit
at gaze

the deerness of deer?
(Pauline Stainer, from ‘The Ice-Pilot Speaks’)

(18)  How bad things were in the Seventies
In the 1970s, there was still an elitist version of the social order. In your town there was “only one restaurant which really counted”, and if you went there you know that the other customers really counted, and this was the secret of how the town worked. Critics like Geoffrey Grigson wanted this narrow apex to apply to poetry and didn’t want new talent to come along and reduce the value of their specialised knowledge. Critics prized their own knowledge as capital and saw a wave of fifty new poets simply as inflationary. They regarded a wider cast of characters as some kind of proletarian insurrection. I was protesting against a literary environment in which scholar-cognoscenti firmly said, "only poets who were in my year at Oxford really count", and were happy to use exclusivity as the test of their own exquisiteness. My role was to knock the walls down, and give time and space to everyone who counted ̶  so that the book reached a vast, even Gothic, length. I saw literature as a wilderness in which I wandered for years, discovering treasures and miracles. If I thought these names were easy to find, I should not have written about them.
Managers have completely shifted position and now everyone wants to be Inclusive even if they are also afraid of anything not dumbed-down into the very depths.
What I was attacking isn’t there any more. This either means that I have won, or that I don’t need to go on.
That sensation, that “there is an elite of ten people in this town and I am part of it”, is not available any more. You can’t buy it on e-bay. But maybe thinking “only 10 people in the country understand Derrida and I am one of them” is the same thing. We could call this theorexia, a disease of the appetite.

(19) databases
It is time to say something about databases. Obviously, I have poured lots of data into spreadsheets, and these are not reproduced in the books. I think their value is very limited. What they can do is stock a kind of knowledge about poets I don’t know much about – this is inferior in quality to information gained from reading and enjoying poetry, but it has some kind of residual value, a feeble detector for thousands of poets who exist but who I don’t read. The sheets certainly help when you want to trace overlaps between anthologies – more likely, where two anthologies fail to overlap. If you want a crude mapping of 500 poets, recording which anthologies they feature in will do that. What emerges from the mapping is the co-existence of deeply divergent alliances of taste, of long standing, which don’t need each other to thrive and which cannot prove each other wrong. You have to ask, in this divergent landscape, how you can write the real history of the poetry scene and how you can posit any judgement as right. There is no common view. Todd Swift said I was wrong 80% of the time – hardly so, but I don’t see how you can mediate between his position and mine. There is no camera to watch a playback through. Different lenses show completely different landscapes.

(20) Before and After Theory

If opinions do not converge about a single literary work, it is not credible that they converge if you look at 1000 works taken en bloc. More likely the volume of exceptions, inconsistencies, aporias, etc. will grow steadily as you add more pieces of data, and a generalisation will be far more worthless and incredible than a judgement about a single work.
Theory of literature cannot be right, or can only be right by dropping the task of describing the noticeable features of the texts which form the “data subordinated to the theory”, and declaring autonomy. Its emotional appeal may be that it invalidates the opinions of everybody except the first-person speaker, and so shovels aside all the objections they could quite correctly be raising. So it is like a first-person shooter game.
One should not underrate the emotional appeal of this fantasy of tyranny. It has the whole history of European despotism behind it, going back to Charlemagne and his missi dominici.
I suppose that if there were another work which gave an inclusive account of the poetry of the period, my views might emerge as eccentric. However, such a work does not exist and cannot be assembled by proxy out of dozens of partial accounts. I expect my version to emerge as the standard interpretation. In the landscape, there are people who think of poetry written in words as hopelessly reactionary, and people who think of poetry not written in rhyme as drug-soaked Modernism. Every encounter with a poet is a deeply subjective experience, of course. It's not a question of objectivity. Just of not being a crackpot.

 (21) tie-up with what poets say
Writing about a poem involves detecting the poet’s intent, and within certain limits criticism which the poet disagrees with has failed. If it’s not in the poem, you aren’t entitled to write about it. The poem suffices. It's apparent that the poets know a lot more about the poems than is actually there inside the poems; if you start to write without a background in an interview, or conversations with the poet, you may make serious mistakes. In 2003-5, I took part in an interviews project, working with Tim Allen. The result came out as a book. I realised at this point that it was possible to write a description of a book, show it to the writer, and ask them to speak to the description. I only did this with one poet, in fact. I regret that I did not follow this method throughout Affluence. Of course, while I was writing it, I was broke, too broke to afford bus fare across London. Also, this collaborative method could not have worked for so many poets, and would have resulted in a more intimate work, with perhaps 40 poets inside it. It would, though, have got closer to the inner core of the works, with much less time given to me guessing and being disoriented.
Dozens of other interviews are available. If what you say is blatantly in contradiction with what the poet says about themselves, you have to question what you’re doing. But, you may be right. The poet may be harvesting words from the statements of better writers, in order to make themselves seem significant, and they may simply be making propaganda for their own work. In some ways they are the least credible witnesses about their own affairs.
Kelvin Corcoran did a whole book of interviews with Lee Harwood. This has a lot of advantages over critical prose written by a second party. I think there is also a shared history which is not contained within the first-person narratives of players speaking for themselves.

(22) what does it mean to be English
I left out the question of being English. The past forty years have seen an army of academics working in a disciplined way, who brought in a lot of defensible data about European cultures which allows a new start after we throw away the old facile discourse of ‘national character’, and permits a whole new discourse of comparison. Explanations of national culture would be a step following this comparative project. If you look at ‘Affluence’, there is a plane of European-comparative discourse which we see glimpses of, but which I fought to keep out of the main lines of the work. This gets too far away from the dramatic surface on which poets make their conscious acts. It reduces the poets to insect scale, as we see huge (but, in exact proportion to that, dull and amorphous) forces produce vague and huge actions. The differences between English poets are the object which gives the scale on which we want to be most sensitive and most attentive. So I don’t discourse on English qualities and correlatively don't explore the dimension of comparison with the Netherlands, France, etc. When I write about Welsh or Scottish poets, I describe them without getting into the innovative but elusively complex question of how they differ from England, or from the London-Oxford axis in England. The comparison tends to draw us back to the moment of separation as the layer of origin of divergences which evolved in a self-organising way as time went by. This would take us back to the 5th century for England, or in fact for Britain. The trouble about going back to the 5th century AD is that, having done a degree in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, I could go on about the ethnogenesis at book length, and have manfully to restrain myself.

Cladders’ approach invalidates the sociological approach. If we got into the “what is Englishness’ tussle we would discard the apparatus of State and in that emptied terrain would identify kinship relations as the remaining source of conditioning power. The most celebrated work on European family structures is by Emanuel Todd, notably in The Explanation of Ideology. We would focus a lot on individualism, and how Todd identified various family types and found the ’absolute nuclear family’ as the type in England, which means that the owner of the land or estate can bequeath it to whoever he wants and can also sell it. This correlates with what economic historians (Miller and Hatcher) found for England, that when documents start, in the 13th century, there is a very active market in land and so the idea of a family holding is already questionable. This means that you have to be an individual, the role is forced on you even if you don’t want it. It tends to produce a pattern with a large number of landless people or families, and then a few families or people with huge landholdings. The existence of a landless labour force needing to work for wages makes it easy to start up businesses. Without proletariat, no business sector.

So, it is possible that there is a plan for family structure and that the roles of individuals, the pre-structures underlying character, are given within it, and the shape of any human role is given by the roles it interacts with, which delimit it. We could guess that, if role underlies character, then character could also be a pre-structure underlying style. Poems could re-enact emotional experiences between humans who are acting inside a structure of rules and limits. The rules would therefore be keys to the poems, and the poems would be discourses about the rules.

Feminism (and its congeners) have obviously made headway with this kind of approach, but by putting the questions in terms of men versus women you blank out the possibility of differentiating between different societies, which is a problem if you want family structure to account for the more gross level differences between the political histories of different regions of Western Europe. You also blank out the differences between different male poets and different female poets, which eliminates the space of discourse within which writing about poetry would have been possible.

Better information would give us fine enough traces to determine whether Scotland is a relict Celtic society or whether its principal component is Anglian (thus akin to Saxon). Whether Scotland is split in any meaningful way, at the level of family organisation, between Celtic and Anglian components.

The notion of the family as a socialisation chamber which retains acquired structures of behaviour over many generations allows a concept of how Scottish and Welsh society differ from English society, even if they have no States of their own (and until the mid-1960s no meaningful political parties of their own). The statements of poets often identify a stratum of conditioning which they experience as distinct from the self.

This might give us a clue to the genre of domestic anecdote. It takes place inside a family and gives a comforting weight of predictability or reality to go with that, but is boring because of its denial of any critical or conscious dimension. As soon as you start to think about the Family, the pleasant texture of the poetry dissolves, and you have this draining and huge complexity to process meaningfully within the poetry, to complete before the poem can be allowed to end. So thinking about domestic anecdote may be interesting even though the genre itself is boring to the point of bringing on a headache. There is arguably an important genre of British poetry which sets out by rejecting the social roles, the unconscious level of conditioning, and making the sense of doubt and exploration central to the poem. By reverting into inherited family roles, poets close down the sphere where their actions were based on consciousness, or revealing of character. Recovering this inherited level by a critical approach which classifies people by their class origins, gender, region, etc. is likely to eliminate everything which is significant about poetry. The most tedious poetry is the sort which most faithfully records attitudes shared by millions of people and acquired early in childhood.

(23) America
Eric Mottram presented the British Poetry Revival as largely the result of accepting American influence, and no doubt this is true. But, if you compare the English version with the originals, it is obvious that the assimilation bumps up against limits. This led to a notion of “the shape of the self”, which affected how the poem came out even if the stylistic model pointed in another direction. To some extent, you can tell from a poem what the nationality of the poet was. It is tempting to get back from the poems generated to the thing generating them.
Does this scale up to describing the character of English people? I am doubtful. The Beatles are accepted as being soaked in the spirit of Liverpool, but a hasty review shows that they never mentioned Liverpool Docks in their songs. (They did mention a sailor – “The judge he guilty found her/ Of robbing a homeward bounder”). The total number of behaviour patterns available in England is a multiple of the patterns captured in poetry. Also the “personality shape” we see in 70s poems may relate to a fraction of the people in England rather than the whole lot.

(24a) across sensory modalities
Poetry is about the combination of sense and thought. Everyone thinks they have the definitive answer to this one, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Reach through jutting thorns
for the blue-hazed sloe,
ignore the blood on your wrist.
Needle-prick to the hard stone,
watch their transfusion seep
through the gin.
silk-sliding fire
of frost and thorns
and bitter fruit.
(Tom Rawling, from 'Sloe Gin')

(This is a sensuous poem of the kind which reviewers praised in the 1970s. Pretty good, actually, but there is life beyond objects.) The real subject here is authenticity. One sign of a statement that comes out of a book and a set of schemas, rather than lived experience, is the predominance of abstractions. A poem so founded would have the outline of an argument rather than of an experience involving other people. It would feature many abstract, categorising nouns and many conjunctions tracing the argument. It would be likely to collapse as the reader found it lacking in authenticity. Many poems in our period collapse. In such a poem, other people, or senses, might appear, but they would be schematic and unconvincing. They have been reduced, by repetition, to the abstract and ethical lesson drawn from them, and have lost all human substance. Authenticity seems to be related to the presence in the poem of information from different senses and modalities of knowledge, which is a feature not found in ideology and dogma. Such a poem contains convincing characters, convincing scenes, convincing interactions.
Of course, the information feeding the brain is also touch of other people’s bodies, and also empathy, where you gather other people’s thoughts and feelings. Poems are not themselves objects, and the flow of empathy is crucial to what happens. Obviously, poems which merely describe objects and touch sensations are not artistically successful. You can’t just print a hardware catalogue and think you have escaped “abstraction”.

I got interested in the use of light in a number of poets associated with A Various Art, and how they liked it because it seemed to offer cross-modal checking, and so evidence that the flight of ideas in the poem was not mere fantasy, and so was authentic. The checking which ends in destruction of the fantasy & the idea is just a by-blow of this – a structurally necessary parody. The mention of light suggests that the poem is part of daily life – the poet is actually there. However, the ability to see the scene as a picture, in which the nature of the impinging light is being noticed, also implies detachment. The poem is in the scene but already sees it as an object of memory, a symbol of itself.
This proof of authenticity could be related to the appearance of solid objects as proofs of divine message in saints’ lives – the saint produces an object from heaven as proof that his verbal message was not a mere hallucination. So the message from a dream tells you where to dig, and as you dig there you find a precious relic, etc. The checking is significant because the poem is recording an anomaly, something exciting and unexpected, and this is a key factor in the choice of moments that can become a poem. The poem thus records a breach event, although not necessarily a miracle. The successful complexity of the poem can also be seen as a miraculous object bringing proof. The technical term for an object which brings proof is tekmerion.

(24b) Entanglement
Archaeology now has the idea of entanglement, the intrication of what the brain does and what the hand does, so that artefacts embody ideas (and this is the grounds on which archaeology answers any interesting questions) and work with mute objects fills up people’s days and accounts for their time. This idea, helpful in periods where there is no written record, has been extended into more modern times by the new history of objects, which has rejected the old Marxist dislike of commodities in order to read history in terms of how people relate to objects, as the basis for the success of industries, producing objects which people want. The concept of entanglement gives us a way of thinking about objects in poetry while bypassing the ideologically corrupted ideas about objects which so often crop up in what reviewers say. Certainly, abstraction is a problem in poetry, and successful poems relate ideas to sensory experience.
A symbol is fundamentally a thing which is abstract and concrete at the same time, and it is possible to define poetry as a flow of symbolic statements. I have tried to write the history of shared symbolism and also shared symbolic objects, as a way of tracking their role in poems.

(24c) speculation
We have suggested that there are some patterns which do not contain data. They do not belong to the past or to shared knowledge. We could just discard them, or we could consider that they are free patterns and that a poem made out of them could be freer than other poems. Language clearly has the ability to create patterns that are not based on memory. Chronologically, an interest in ‘vacant’ patterns, generated by processes of one kind or another, was popular in the Eighties. It was partly a reaction against political and documentary poetry, in the Seventies, which had foregrounded suffering and frustration too much. After competition to be authentic, you had poets saying, “I don’t need to be authentic”.
Obviously, the brain can mimic patterns that don’t exist. In the history of art, we continually find patterns that couldn’t have existed and which flow into the empty spaces of possibility. Any set of artistic rules has the power to generate forms which do not correspond to memory.

(25) Why 1960?
Why 1960 as a start line? Some of us had an unconscious belief that the official record was only 40 years out of date – that the smaller, warmer literary world of the old dispensation had not been riven by the same hatred and ignorance. We were aware that while the Underground had not 'opened' until 1960, there was a pre-Underground, the Apocalyptic writers of the 40s who had been subject to a new apocrupsis, burying and covering. The lure of the 40s themes opened up by James Keery (in his great essay “Schonheit Apocalyptica”) was more than I could resist. The foray into the 1940s was a trip, a holiday outside the borders of the project. I realised at the time that this journey into the past meant the end of continuously advancing research into poetry that had only just been written. Back then, in 1999, the project had evidently ceased to expand. The chapter on the New Romantics (in Origins of the Underground) is interesting, but it only covers the really central figures, and there is certainly a lot more poetry which deserves to be resurrected.

Grimaldi bones smeared with red ochre
That apes bright blood the life-giver
Conjured in vain as age by age
Rubble and drift and ashes built a tomb
A stiff and rocky shroud
but saved no soul

More splendid fantasy robed Osiris dead
In gold and natron under pyramids,
Furnished the palace-grave for an eternity
The Ka has never entered.

(Richard Aldington, from ‘Life Quest’, 1935)

(26) Atlantic periphery
Fairly obviously, I'm interested in the Atlantic periphery. Some English reviewers were angry at being asked to read any pages at all about Welsh and Scottish poets. They were happy in Oxford or central London in rooms full of socially OK people, and didn't want to leave even for half an hour. I couldn’t disprove these tenacious geographical prejudices. I don't think you can like poetry and never want to go anywhere. Being in these metropolitan networks can mean the death of the imagination. It can also mean you think there's just one way to write poetry. Can we list more factors? People have the right to be bored. You can list these factors too aggressively and erase people's right to choose. My emotional centre includes Wales and Scotland.
You will note the omission of poetry in Welsh. When I was writing the section on Wales and Scotland, my Welsh was not good enough to read poetry in the original. Anyway, you can't acquire deep knowledge in a hurry. I gave up this possibility. I do have views on Welsh-language poetry, but they are not written down. Maybe I wasn't fair to Gaelic poets, either. I did a course in (Scots) Gaelic in 2000-1 and my Gaelic is still rudimentary. My amateur opinion is that modern Gaelic poetry is not important apart from Sorley MacLean, for whom you have wonderful translations. The first translations of Sorley that I read were by Iain Crichton Smith – and I may have been really unfair to Smith. His work in Gaelic may be more important than his work in English. (I do own one of his books in Gaelic now, but can only read it slowly.) The fact that he thinks in two languages is sufficiently interesting to demand detailed attention as part of reaching a proper judgement about this prolific and original poet. I'm not interested in the song-like and folklore-like poems that people write for local circulation. At the end of the day, I grew up speaking English and have never had enough time to learn about the other cultures of the country.

The white rooms of the house we glimpsed through pine,
quince and pomegranate are derelict.
Calendars of saint-days still cling to plaster,
drawing-pinned. Velvet-weavers, hammam-keepers
have rolled their weekdays in the rags, the closing
craft-bag of centuries. And worker bees
on hillsides, hiding in ceramic jars,
no longer yield the gold of robbers' honey.
(Mimi Khalvati, from 'The Bowl')
This is an example of the exotic being attractive in poetry. Try this –

Beyond this contour
Miserly cross the middle of this wold
And there
The glorious beggar Bushell globed his light,
Lean from the calf of Man, the oil and herbs
Of parsimony back
In the mustard method his great Bacon taught,
Back in the panorama of his pageboy grace –
And calling Charles, the noble slipmaster
Irritant, Charles, catspaw of envoi voyant,
Engineer o engineer, proved for him thunders
Bird song and thunderplay
All in one gainly tragedy
From the mosaic rock.
Out of this pulsing drumhead grew the grant
Of mines in silver Wales
And master, master them, prosperity
In minting with the plume of three,
Prosperity the right to plunge
Along the adits to the watered rock
He knew, plunge from a pageboy hope
Emerge an engineer.
(Roland Mathias, from ‘Enstone Rock’, in his 1946 volume Break in Harvest)

That is a really underrated volume from a central figure of the Anglo-Welsh scene. I didn’t manage to write about it. The material is taken from Aubrey’s Brief Lives. Mathias didn’t invent obscurity, but we have to breathe the word.

(27) Ego-histoire 
I think it is reasonable to suspect that someone reading poetry is limited by the components of their own taste. I have listed some of the moments of my formation. I was a modern linguist from the age of say 14 to 20 and was very involved with French and German poetry, coming on to English poetry later. I was staunchly on the Left and always searching for Left commitment in poetry, for socialist realism indeed. I grew up in England but was conscious of being Scottish and was compelled, also as a teenager, by feelings about Scottish nationalism and the fate of the Scots language. I was fascinated by philology, and took that as the great model for dealing with texts. In parallel I was involved with history and saw myself as a historian, and was a fan of historians. I grew up in a manufacturing town and my father taught at Loughborough University of Technology, I was heavily involved with the idea of engineering and wanted to read poetry or books about that subject. I was living in North London from 1978 and was caught up in the radicalism of north London, sexual politics or identity politics or what have you. I was a pop fan from early childhood on and was particularly involved with punk rock and with New Musical Express as it was around 1977-82. I knew several of the Cambridge poets (the Grosseteste/ Ferry Press lot) from a fairly early stage and was involved with their fate, although I wasn’t part of their thing artistically. After a certain point, maybe 1984, I also hung out with the London School and I spent a lot of time with them over the following twenty years.

If you put these together, they obviously don’t cohere. They also give me access to a wide range of the spectrum – I couldn’t just reach one tiny segment and become indistinguishable from it. The outcome is that I cover the widest range of anyone, and this is the distinctive feature of my critical work.

People occasionally stumble over one of these biographical components and claim that it explains everything. You can see the whole story as one of me longing for Scottish and socialist poetry as the embodiment of pristine virtue and being unable to find anything to satisfy that hunger – dropping down onto English Underground poetry as an unwelcome substitute. My initial predilections were systematically thwarted, and I developed a set of tastes based on experience and not on initial prejudices.

(28) Psychoceramics
I understand that people may not like the ventures into psychoceramics (viz. the scientific study of crackpots) which surface here and there in Origins of the Underground and Council of Heresy. The underlying message is that these extraordinary visions of the unreal resemble the momentary and amazingly detailed universes of association which one sees during poetry, and so act as a metaphor for them. The worlds of poets are not the same as the worlds of Neo-Platonists and so on, but draw on the same deep channels of the imagination. In fact, some poets have used these deviant cosmologies, with Kathleen Raine and Eric Mottram being just two examples. Also, these things are fun to read about. Out of 2000 pages, I gave over maybe 15 pages to ceramic affairs, which you are welcome to leave out if you wish. A by-product was to eliminate the irrational and non-Christian cosmologies as a factor in most poetry: they don’t matter for most poets you look at.

a damaged mind rolled on a black marble
into an incandescent yellow flue:
the burn-back registers on my ticket
to the escalator, to fuming gaps
between the circuit of blood-stained mummies,
crooking like geese in pursuit, and the dolls,
(their features twisted), who pursued you through
the subways, wound up with aggressive teeth

pincering your ankles. They have returned
to feed other psychoses, to spit white lead
into the pineal. There is no space
living or dead we can retreat into
or realize with impunity
Floating above the Circus, no torsos,
but frog-like flippers attached to a skull
too magnified for microcosmic space.
A ka-prism through violet through orange,
and when recognized in the temporal,
it was something husking its wings at Kew,
an insect flisking on a leaf of eyes.

(Jeremy Reed, from 'Stratton Elegy')
Reed was using this imagery to describe states of mind of unnatural sensitivity and suggestibility. We need to recover what the imagery meant.

 (29) Alternative poetry
The 1991 edition of the ALP Catalogue has an index of the authors included in the list of the various underground publishers who were included in it. So, we can count 1570 authors. This list is alternative poets only, more conventional publishers had no benefit from joining the ALP. There were certainly quite a few poets active in the high days of the 70s who were no longer involved by 1991. If we add notional figures for poets who began after 1991, or whose titles were not in print in 1991, we come to a figure of 2000. This is quite intimidating. Can I be an advocate for all of these people? certainly not. Most of them were bad writers, outwitted by the difficulties of making new and ambitious techniques work for them, debilitated by revolt and refusal, faculties decayed after listening to idiots. But it would be utter foolishness to write a history of the time without facing this body of work. I suspect you could find 100 people in this list who have achieved something serious and abiding. The figure may be higher. Eric Mottram’s programme essays of 1974 and 1977 listed 56 names in the “British poetry revival”, but evidently that wave had not even peaked in 1977 and many more names should be added.
One abiding feature seems to be the inability of cultural critics to accept the real figures for poetry publications, coming out instead with figures which are often only 10% of the real ones. I find this troubling, as the underlying motive is possibly a wish for control, so that “poetry I don’t know about is unauthorised and illegitimate”. I suppose people would like critics to give a broad-based and sustainable view of the scene, but I doubt this is realistic. Volumes are too high.

(30) mid-century decline
An agreed fact is that British poetry was in a terrible state at mid-century and that the Sixties came as a breath of fresh air. I wrote a book about this called The Failure of Conservatism. The whole Underground movement was impelled by the idea that official poetry had run helplessly aground. This was a convulsive, animal-brain, panic reaction, rather than a finding of exact philological science. However, not only this, but also the counter-reaction against innovative poetry, are essential concepts– if you fail to understand them, you fail to understand the history.
It has been such a tenet of informed opinion, ever since I began to be involved with poetry, in 1973, that the mainstream was desperate and dismal, that we have neglected to wonder why this was, and consequently whether this condition may have come to an end, like other illnesses. A critical role seems to have been played by long-term developments within the core of Oxford literati and their shared norms. The issues were less to do with overall commitment to a philosophical or political system and more to do with the detailed conventions for writing a poem and also for reading and approving it. The data suggest that the 20s generation at Oxford were awesomely talented and that the mid-century decline of English poetry was inseparable from the weakness of their successors, which was due to a literary investment in models (Auden, Betjeman) which didn't work out. The dip was resolved by an adaptation of these models (which actually preserved some of their essential features), presumably during the 1980s and 1990s.

(31) Crisis of ideology
To be sure, observers at the time admitted the problem of writers and analysed it. It is significant that they dedicated so much effort to mapping the failure. Creativity had become threatened and uncertain, consciousness raised too many problems for consciousness to come to terms with. Many writers at that time agreed that the bourgeoisie were in hopeless decline, but being Marxists saw this as positive and as a result of historic guilt. Another favoured explanation was the collapse of shared cosmological frameworks, stable sets of meanings within which complex literary creations could be constructed expressing communal values. Destabilising and grandiose emotional projections onto Soviet or American culture were a symptom of geopolitical preoccupations being translated into the realm of culture (and of the ego). Roy Fuller said in his interesting 1956 essay, 'Poetry: Tradition and Belief', that

'Poets who have successively emerged from their youth since 1914 have usually felt their greatest problem to be one of belief. No doubt a minority has accepted Christianity or Marxism: accepted, that is to say, a dogmatic ideological system to be worked out in poetry. But most have inherited the vague and difficult humanism of the Western World(.)'

This humanism is now confused: 'Its feelings are ambivalent, its comments choked(.)' He goes on to say that if poets have no ideology their work 'is always in danger of degenerating into triviality, stock response, dead forms', also that such a poet 'has usually found it beyond his power to link poetry to life, to incorporate life in his poetry'(.) He is not specific about this problem; but he does not say that it consists in the poet, afflicted by middle class guilt, being uncertain of how the audience is going to respond to social judgments. But what is missing, surely, is a sense of an audience. Without this the poem can never stabilise, it is like ink on a hard surface, forming temporary letters which just flow and blur every time the surface vibrates. There are many similar statements from the mid-century. I am a bit tired of people saying that they write bad poetry because of their unusually high moral sensitivity.

(32) ideology
Virtually everyone is certain that they don’t want ideology from a poet. There is a background of political writing, at its peak from about 1933 to 1956, where numerous writers were knowingly writing propaganda, and ideology was the set of guide-lines which directed the propaganda. The lines obviously included British patriotism, exhorting people to fight in defense of the realm, and Stalinism, exhorting people to overthrow the bourgeois and all his works.
The word has a special meaning, whereby it is used to invalidate what someone else is saying. So, in a political negotiation, when you say that someone is animated by ideology, you are saying that they are not trying to reach a solution and so that you are justified in breaking off negotiations and not seeking a solution. The word has become problematic because it is so often used by the most unreasonable and rigid people to describe everyone else, and in fact everyone who disagrees with them. The exact difference between ideology and any political attitude in general needs closer examination. It looks as if readers are constantly asking the question whether a poem is authentic, and constantly applying a battery of tests which are not conscious, even though they are crucial to how poetry is read.
The whole question of authenticity could offer better understanding of differences between different lines of taste. That is, I suppose, why someone dislikes your poetry. I am doubtful whether any of the tests of authenticity that can be applied actually work, by giving a wholly robust answer to whether someone is authentic or not.
There is another version of “ideology”, whereby what you want from a poet is a message about the nature of human affairs, and this is a much larger class of structures within which “ideology” is a subset. That is, the irrational and synthesising insights which poets produce are the core element of their work, and the tests which we subject groups of ideas to are crucial, because this is indeed the core of the whole artistic experience. As would follow, a poet whose underlying message is “leaves are green. Hills are old. People should be nice to each other” is disappointing because the main axis of the poems is so feeble– whereas a poet with a mass of unusual insights would be much more interesting.
I am interested by nationalists, Welsh and Scottish. Of course, part of the nationalist ambience includes images of English people which are crude, distorted, and malicious. That ambience incorporates a number of false images, although the maturation process has reduced them over time. But the strength of nationalist poets is vitally the strength of their nationalist ideas, the extent to which they explore the imaginary of nationalism and the (imagined) consequences of radical devolution. Their poems have been compelling and inspiring also through their ownership of an ideology.
I suspect that a poet with no core body of coherent and striking ideas is a low-end and weak poet.

 (33) negative rules
When Denis Donoghue wrote The Third Voice in 1959, it must have seemed that verse drama was a vital area of culture, and that it would forge ahead during the Sixties, as it certainly had during the Fifties. His book reaches back to Yeats, around 1910. I wonder if anyone in 1959 foresaw that no significant verse drama would be written in the next 40 years. (Did I miss something?)
Significant mapping lines can be drawn for a period by tracing the negative rules – the areas where poets dare not write. This makes us look away from real texts, I am afraid, and towards silent cultural rules – inhibitions that could be traumas. Noticeable silent areas in our period are poetic narrative and verse drama. One could add, simply, rhetoric. Because these rules are artificial and are learnt through sites of cultural instruction, their prevalence creates a zone of the Naïve, where people compose who have not noticed what the rules are. This zone could be a source of restitution, renewal, rejuvenation. The “instruction” presumably involves also useful knowledge, warehouses of techniques and powers, which are available to poets who read. The Naive is a familiar area in the fine arts but is little heard of in poetry. My impression is that the cultured line of poetry has intensively drawn on the naïve areas, so that there is no deficit for genuinely “outsider” poets to exploit. Raine’s use of the Carmina Gadelica, a late nineteenth century collection of Hebridean charms which were probably significantly older than that, in her 1951 volume The Year One, was a breakthrough moment and anticipates the New Age thing which has been such an influence on poetry (and which took so much from Raine’s work on Blake).

(34) failure to assimilate
I had terrible problems getting this project published. If you are punting a book to an academic publisher, they want something about books already on the institutional syllabus. Meanwhile, ardent as you may be, you can't teach poets on whom there are no secondary texts. So the syllabus doesn't change very much. There is also a commercial world where people write blurbs and gush overheated enthusiasm – and which is also obsessed by the new. If you put this together with academic conservatism, do you get a complete view? Hardly. There is a gap where quick and autonomous operators like Lucie-Smith, G.S. Fraser, and George MacBeth used to work. This is the gap I fit into.
There are serious doubts whether the academic world will catch up the 40 years lag of comprehension of modern poetry. There is, however, a world of informed readers – the tier from whom the poets are drawn, of course. This doesn't seem to have shown up on the radar of publishers, though. Knowledge within the alternative poetry scene grows continually, but I don't see much assimilation by the wider world since 1992.

(35) The Long 1950s
I did read anthologies, but otherwise I didn't really read a lot of mainstream work up to 2005. I started a project, of reading mainstream poets to see if there was anything live there which could be retrieved for art. The main discovery was Anthony Thwaite. Part of the pleasure of writing about him was that it would irritate the avant-garde so much. I was really glad to read Thwaite. There was this dazzling central image of the industry and its cultural managers promoting conventional and shallow poets and denying the existence of innovative poets. It took a cultural wrench to recognize that mainstream poets could be hidden by the managers and the marketing discourse, and that there could be a whole flock of good mainstream poets who were just under-promoted. Peter Levi, Judith Kazantzis, and Anthony Thwaite were the main finds here. I won’t go into the ones I read but couldn’t get with, but those three were poets I could really get enthusiastic about, whose themes I was excited to sense and explore, whose disparate books I could track down on the internet or in dusty second-hand bookshops. The interview with Thwaite in Peter Ryan’s doctoral thesis on the development of poets was a compelling moment of knowledge here. Reading Levi and Thwaite led me to think intensively about the 1950s. This project developed into a book called The Long 1950s. I wrote this roughly 2009-2011, after Affluence was already completed.

But a tumulus looms across meadows, low burden of old sacrificial compulsions, plundered relic of vanquished theologies. Stone knife, bronze dagger. As the builders’ men move in, under the earth or by the lintel they uncover a stone salt-glazed jar, whose grimacing mask warns of a lock of hair, a handful of nails, a stain of urine, a pierced heart cut from musty cloth. The heat of the winter sun chills to an icy meteorite, as men believe in witches and old women die in fire.
(Anthony Thwaite, from New Confessions, XLII)

This isn’t “modern style”; it’s hard to resist, though. Or Peter Levi –

I cannot keep my life out of my voice

one came back from the Asiatic dead
dragging a mass of Asian foliage:
and those with white faces
who rose early, who soberly rehearsed
some few words that had broken greater sleep.

Storm-clouds were cannonading in mid-air.

horses through the mist
serpents in the dust
We have drunk dry the voices in the well.
wild fruit
fresh water
those long-legged boys
the nightstick of the sun will batter down
shouting and swearing, stonily

But underfoot some kind of new grass with a dusky breath.
Moisture, whole threads of aubergines. Yellow and purple, ripe,

(from ‘Pancakes for the Queen of Babylon’) This is “in the modern style”, as a tribute to his friend Nikos Gatsos.

(36) groups

I have included limited discussion of groups, such as the “school of London”. There is information to be recovered here and it is interesting to read about. I certainly have a problem with individuals who voice the consensus of the group but blatantly get it wrong because they are speaking so egocentrically. Generally, I see the outstanding books as the designated subject matter, so if you write about all the books you can leave out chapters about the groups. If the source material gives you information about the artistic debates and proposals which the creative individuals shared, that is useful, but an account of which pubs they drank in and who passed through those pubs is less useful. I am not sure that various accounts of the London boys recover the shared proposals and the formative artistic speculations. Too much assertion of legitimacy has damaged the compass of those accounts.

(37)  gratitude
I have to express my gratitude to critics and historians such as Edward Lucie-Smith, Martin Seymour-Smith, Jonathan Raban, Eric Mottram, Eric Homberger, J.F. Keery, Robert Hewison, Geoffrey Thurley, Alan Sinfield, G.S. Fraser, Wolfgang Gortschacher, Glyn Jones, Christopher Whyte, Roland Mathias, Tony Conran, Jeff Nuttall, Martin Booth, among others, who made access to the faceless mass of modern poetry possible. Equal gratitude goes to anthologists, also giving access, such as Kenneth Allott, Andrew Crozier, Tim Longville, Iain Sinclair, Don Paterson. Also important were interviews where poets, at least the honest and articulate ones, explained how it works. Roy Fisher is interviewee Number One.

(38) social inequality
Some quite tedious looking-up work on Kenneth Allott’s 1960 anthology covering the period 1918-1960 recovered the fact that 40.6% of the 85 poets included had studied at Oxford. (I looked at other anthologies of roughly the same time, by Grigson and Blackburn, and found very similar percentages.) This supports work done by sociologists on unequal access to culture, and indeed to higher education. I am concerned, though, that some of the people who get into the study of inequality go on to reject all the cultural creativity of the 20th century, on the grounds that it is connected to inequality.
Time at university just follows up on older experiences, earlier in time. The fundamental thing appears to be teenagers encountering inspiring English teachers at school, who like poetry and can communicate how it works and why it is important. It seems that such teachers were rare in 1935 and are still rare now. There is little doubt that such teachers were more common at fee-paying schools (and found conditions with small class sizes and calm students pleasing). This is not a basis for denouncing them, or the people who got to like modern poetry and subsequently went on to write it.
It looks as if poetry is a realisation of organic structures which already existed, and which contain luxury, autonomy, liberation from constraint, high symmetry and consequence, etc. These structures are in some ways fragile, but at a deeper level they are tenacious and much older than individual lifespans.

(39) slow take-on
Saturation is the key quality of the modern cultural market. There is too much culture and the “culturati” feel swamped.
It is not possible to read modern poetry rapidly, because you just can’t take it in unless you slow down and give it all the space it needs. Poetry is produced by the imaginative efforts of the reader in a way which doesn’t apply to “passive” arts like film and music.
It is hardly surprising if the business misses most good new poets. This defines my role – a total recovery dig in which everything of value gets written up, even if decades later.
Why are so many poets neglected? I think part of the reason is the psychological romance between primary readers and particular poets. Readers want to project onto a poet. They also want to be a protector for that poet – inscribing themselves into the story as a primary ally. Like any romance, this is exclusive and pushes everyone else into an artificial darkness. The reason why you can’t see the whole group of “good poets born in the 1950s”, let’s say, is that you have an artistic romance with one of them and no time left over for the rest. The romance method leads to striking unfairness. You would do so much better if you didn’t want to fill that protector role and took a more scholarly approach.
I do better than other critics because I don’t like this star/fan set-up, and have time to take on a whole constellation of poets – and their connections with each other.

This is the epoch of slow-down, night and ice.
This is the era of silver.
They called a summit in Rio because this is the era of slow-down.
This is the moment of paper.

This is the monument of paper. (The way any newspaper is a form of moral origami.)
They called a summit in Rio.
This is the era of zero.
This is the era of systems. (The way any newspaper is a form of moral origami.)
This is the age of no.
This is the age of information. This is the era of explanations. This is the epoch of denouements.
This is the era of shadows.

This is the hour of awakening, dawn and thaw.
This is the moment of water.
L'Age d'Or. The age of fish in their bowl. Fickle light in an instant of water.
This is the age of paper.
(Michael Ayres, from ‘The Age of Drift’)
You focus on one Big Poet born in the Fifties and block Michael Ayres out altogether. Is this rational?

(40) affective individualism
Lawrence Stone’s work on the history of the family identifies a type of family relations, called by him affective individualism, which emerged in parts of north-west Europe (the Netherlands, northern France, England) in the eighteenth century. There is a fairly clear link between this pattern of relations, in which affection takes priority over moral codes, and intense emotional relations between spouses also extend to children, and a style of poetry in which intense and narcissistic relations between poet and reader take priority over other artistic possibilities. Stone’s analysis is especially useful for clarifying the difference between Western art and the art of the Communist bloc, which was scarcely influenced by affective individualism. It may be significant that the big levels of support for Communism were in particular regions. Different family regimes may, as Stone suggests, be responsible for different styles of art. Stone has a succession of family types follow each other in time in Britain, and in neighbouring societies. Family type may also be different in different social classes (and be connected with different approaches to the education system).
A key factor is the relatively high level of education of mothers and the very high level of interest of parents in the education, but also in the happiness, of their children. This combination promotes formidable levels of success in the tasks which education tests. Poetry (or art) within this world may function as over-fulfilment of programs implicit in affective individualism.
My impression is that while affective individualism as a cluster of patterns describes the unconscious rules of modern poetry with unnerving accuracy, it is of less use in tracing boundaries within that poetry. It describes the water which the fish swim in and is too omnipresent to give insights into particular poets. It is useful in understanding the difference between 20th C poetry and earlier periods.
If we find both poets and readers developing, at key moments, a greater interest in style than in describing social reality or explaining how human relations work, an explanation can be offered in terms of the investment in children which yields a preoccupation with fine details of one person’s behavior. Confining the view to one person and confining it again to fine details exhibiting their character and the stages of their development is like the use of a microscope: it reaches amazing levels of detail, while excluding a kind of view which other kinds of poetry find indispensable.
Poets may want to grasp the fact that readers need a set of biographical and emotional patterns to empathise with, and that certain styles may consistently frustrate this need. Discussion of the self-indulgence of poets may be beside the point: the capacity for introspection, for psychological insight and for symbolic exposition of this, may indulge the reader’s wishes, above and beyond questions of narcissism and fixing on small-scale events.
It is noticeable that poets develop a stylistic signature, and that critics often treat the presence of this as a sign of artistic depth. It is possible to argue that the foregrounding of style, and the clearing away of other features to allow this style to be exhibited, have replaced ideology (and, from an older phase, religion) as the central axis of the poetic work.

The light drops from mimic shower-heads, it burns the skin and exposes the prints of bare feet turning in all directions, unable to fix on one. Then the light goes out.

The bee-hive tomb: a skin peeled off away from a dome of metallic light, direct source of lampblack coolness. The domains are aligned, they banish the shades of difference.

Knocking on the wall: dispirited go-devil; pump trolley where no labour is free; the obstinate cradle of strife; a conductress of blue murder.

Its cubic capacity of frets and strings, fingerboards and sound boards, disjected instruments, having no members in common, extorts harmony from passing clouds that raise and lower the temperature of wood, fibre and rosin.

Spinning in time and space, the mirror-plant, where night-insects collide and fall to whispering grass, tumorous mildew, yeasts, and coats of mail through which they grow.

The android dream: music appearing from nowhere; advancing, retreating like Northern Lights in a fourth dimension; no scissoring catgut, players unhinged, a frenzy of pizzicati; only the extragalactic nebulae, coasting in pitted chambers of the brain.
(Rod Mengham, from ‘Klangfarbenmelodie’)

Signature is certainly key to this poem, but the style is less a passionate revelation than a deep-freeze of scepticism and indifference. There is no pat on the head for the reader. This is very original. The poet is not trying to be liked.

(41) individualism
One of the main lines of English historiography since the 1930s has been the development of the Marxist group, something which is now a comforting monument to local achievement. Of course, the retrievals of ever less prejudiced research led the stars away from legacy Marxism, and the Communist Party. The legacy opinion was that individualism was a Bad Thing, and that the pioneer development of this aberrant trait in England was part and parcel of the development of capitalism and alienation. The historians faithfully set themselves to write the history of individualism. But, as decades went by, this line became ever less part of a politicized refutation: instead, the history of individualism looked back out of the texts, ever increasingly, as something autonomous, socially creative, possessed of a dynamic of its own. It became the hero of the story, and spoke. This is the context in which Stone’s work was written.
It would be difficult to find a historian who thinks that English or British society is going to become less individualist. The slope of time does not incline in this direction. The position of modern poets seems abidingly to be that they hold collectivist ideas in politics while ruthlessly pursuing differentiation as regards poetic style and the presentation of the self. The role of a literary historian seems to be to acknowledge that this division exists and perhaps ease the strain on the poets. Poets seem vulnerable to old-line Marxist stormtroopers who denounce them for subjectivity, formalism, individualism, the experience of luxury, etc., and there is a lack of theoretical writing which justifies artistic individualism.

The idea of history as being in part the study of behaviour imperatives which individuals at various times fulfil, over-fulfil, or fail to fulfil, is of interest. It is not clear why these imperatives change from generation to generation, or what their ultimate source is. To see art as either motivated by, or teaching and disseminating, these structures, may have further insights to yield. It is not clear, either, why a society dominated by one family type should produce young people who develop a new society expressing a different family type. The basic concept of these social patterns is that they reproduce themselves – a society reproduces itself, rather than producing something alien and unfamiliar. This concept is wrong, at least some of the time.

[42] Indeterminacy
Indeterminacy has been claimed as the key difference between innovative poetry and traditional poetry. At the basic level, if we say that there are poets who regard the whole organization of the world is provisional and can be changed and re-modelled, and poets who regard every person as bound by obligations which can never change, and even objects as being bound by rules that can’t be altered, then it is true.
Indeterminacy replaces older terms such as suggestive and evocative. It can also mean vague. Poetry needs significant components of precision, cohesion, determinacy, to be effective.
The idea that indeterminate poetry leaves everything in question, and that readers virtuously re-imagine a more equal world in the vague emptiness left open by this verbal non-statement, is too optimistic. It is more credible that indeterminacy has different functions in different poets, and so is indeterminate. For this reason, using terms such as suggestive, evocative, liberated, non-dogmatic, or vague is more accurate.
In the mid-century period, there was a line of poetry which was too preoccupied with factual precision, and was very un-evocative as a result. This also extended to descriptions of inner states, which were to a large extent squeezed out of the poetry. Believing in facts-only excluded socially critical ideas, because these are not literal and factual.

the generalized other of a television
its systems embedded in taut drums of sound
word-like tentacles follow dog-like
elaborated mouth shapes snapping instructions
out of its armchair
confused patterns
scars gouged
in granite
body tremors
eye ache
sclerotic fingers
(Paul Gogarty, from The Accident Adventure, 2)
This is modern poetry, surely. Indeterminacy may not be the best description of it.

generates adversorial difference forbade
cultic seduced the colours
trapped REVERSE DISCURSIVE forgetting
appearances "a bloody mesh"
sticks at a double
"interactive" exhorting a further
commitment of the homoerotic
dark streets of Europe
litter the quest with
leaden nouns from extra
territorial an imperative follows
versed in measured despatialise
frames “definition" reduced her
fluid demonic the simile
flowers rigid in the
dream decisive surfacing LIFE
SENTENCE italic Seed inked
the fetish performance lacked
a character voiced recorded
figurative for barbaric in
the transcript account what
tautology suppressed doctored obliterate
(Adrian Clarke, from ‘Spectral Investments’)
The parts do not stand in a definite syntactic relation to each other and do not qualify each other. But the poem is surely precise as well as syntactically indeterminate.

(43) When I was writing Failure of Conservatism, the decline of The Movement had already taken place. I was unaware of this, finding the mainstream too repellent to monitor its course of errors. However, there had already been an improvement of quality in the “non-alternative” world, at least partly covered by the word Postmodernism. The date of this decline is rather hard to fix. There were certainly signs of it in the years 1983-86.
There is a fear that poetry went on a downward gradient after 1977. This comes out roughly as a contrast between poets born in the 40s and those born in the 1950s. The explanation would be that the revolutionary crisis which flared out in 1977 or 1975 was super-stimulating and that people who missed it just weren’t so exciting in their poetic flight. The fact may not be real, as there are non-facts which have coherent and clever explanations. I never got into this, because I could see it was so depressing for everyone born in the 1950s, and that is when I was born. They were the unknown poets I was trying to put on the map.

When we opened the door
the corpse of cigarettes, wild music & brandy fell out.

We reeled back, put our heads down
& went in. 'Bean soup', said Steve.
We breathed pure garlic farts
& smoke from the charcoal grill.

They brought it in a tureen
full of gypsy gold teeth, smiling up at us.
The beans were hopping
to the pizzicato rhythms of a mad orchestra,

to a melody that danced them
deep into the soulful thighs of the ham,
a spice barrel full of paprika, which went
ba-boom! when we dunked kettledrums of bread in it.

We slurped the fiercest bits. It was
the choicest liquid ever tasted, & it had chosen us.
our ears pricked to jagged kolo music,
the wheel dance, so many little feet this way & that

like beans you can't get on yr spoon, so fast they jiggle,
that way & this. 'How many bean languages can you eat?'
asked Steve. 'Serbian? Hungarian? Danubian?'
The white wine sank a shaft of bliss into our smoky heads

(John Hartley Williams, from ‘Bean Soup’)

Williams was probably the best “pomo” poet to emerge in the 1980s, but it was a whole wave. He came out of Pop poetry, and owed a great deal to Surrealists such as Prevert and Soupault.

Across empty England tilting under cloud
towards a new order and petrol thirst,
trees lift like visions at the margins of fields;
an innocent history passing with ease
as if the rural poor lined the road, waving.

Blasted through a slot together landscape,
with no essential link between these lives
—easy as speed, didn't feel a thing—
dead winding gear, wooded fields, barracks towns,
figures moving together in a film.

To answer the young lord's questions:
we can commit a whole country to its prisons,
depopulate and lay waste all around us and
restore Sherwood forest as an asylum for outlaws;
in the English good night, where Byron glides unwritten

(Kelvin Corcoran, from ‘And Such Other Cudgelled and Heterodox People’)
KC is one of the Eighties poets, who wasn’t around in the sunlit days of the Seventies. Does this represent a decline? Hardly so. But the Left had specific problems during the Eighties.

(44) Identity politics
There is a line of discussion of art which breaks it down into warring factions on a sociological basis, and sees the task of cultural critics as seizing and tearing away territory from other factions. This is called “identity politics”. It is an approach I have ignored. Clearly, if you are analysing poetry in terms of what sociological grouping the poets belong to, you are ignoring artistic qualities, and this makes my text unnecessary or incomprehensible. People fighting in identity politics often think that all poets are equally talented, so that describing artistic differences is some kind of bourgeois trick. This is partly because they don’t want to read the poetry.
This sociological approach is only of use if it predicts market behavior, i.e. what attracts people to a particular book and predicts their tastes. I think it fails to satisfy this test. The reality is that poets have to be sold one by one and that readers choose poets as individuals, not as sociological categories. Crude patterns work if you erase all the data which could disprove them. Reducing taste to sociological blocs is too insensitive by a couple of orders of magnitude. Individualism cannot be made to go away just by pooling data so that you cannot detect its effects. The whole “IP” thing was developed for small-scale political land-seizure, it has essentially no validity for art. The kind of data analysis which draws on adequate funding, notably analysis of voting and of consumer behaviour, produces credible results – but identity politics has no element of this.
IP asks poetry to deliver “a self in a shopping bag”. This incites poets to write very ordinary, self-centred poetry. The idea is to be exactly like everyone else in the sociological category, and this means that creativity, experimenting with ideas, improvisation, interest in technique, are forbidden. They make you less like everyone else.

With earth-grained hands
I root in mud
to separate incestuous sibling
parsnips for the pot.

Can these be poet's hands
scrubbing the corkscrew toes
but scullion-scars,

split finger-ends,
flour makeup, onion scent
Hands meet in mud
lost metacarpal beads,
dust fingertips that grope for words,
ash witnesses.

(Anna Adams, from 'Poet with Scrubbing-brush')
This is a very good feminist poem. The strength of the poem is that it speaks for many people, but the message is that the poet wants freedom to develop original ideas.

I had these ideas,
thought to escape their dreamy persuasion,
they follow in the slipstream of demented ideals
breaking like a comet bright and suddenly
annihilated in sunless space.
By whatever exercise I employ, whatever device
or regressive manipulation, the true displacement
eludes me, slides away, tide struck
on a wave of sinister forgetfulness.
Derelict day, invisible distance, their song.
Replace the receiver and continue to talk.
Talk softly, calmly, with assurance.
My tongue slips across the words as they haunt
the faithless superstructure of your generous breath.
Continue to talk, communicate in the language
of phantoms, matter respects its given laws,
sound and light obey consequential demonstrations.
Self precludes authentic rehearsal of many changes.
Some of these began with something someone said.
Others endorse the supremacy of the human
whose development process illuminates the eye
as darkness at the back of the mind
issues an ultimatum though we continue
and our light with day makes fuse.

(David Chaloner, from art for others)
While this does not empty out the self, its focus is clearly outside the self, in the larger world which impinges on our senses at each moment. Dare I mention some of the poets I left out – Paul Gogarty, Rod Mengham, Gerard Casey, Paul Brown, Paul Evans, Jack Beeching, Michael Gibbs, Harry Guest. Anybody can make a mistake.

While I do not intend to write further about modern British poetry, quite a large amount of material prepared for ‘Affluence’ did not make it into the final cut, and these finished parts are now available on this website.

 (45) Opinions
Something that stuck in my mind and irritated me was a comment that newspapers, now they are all broke, are filled with Opinionated Columns because they cost almost nothing. You don’t have to do any fact-checking. What irritated me was an uneasy feeling that editors also don’t do any fact checking on poems. This brings us up to the idea that Opinionated Columnists have replaced poets in that niche of “narcissistic, uninhibited, biased, intimate, post-truth reactions to real news” and that, if poetry were to become big business, it would look so much like Columns that you couldn’t tell the difference. Poets always think they are bearers of a higher truth, but maybe it’s a lower truth.
I am intrigued by the idea of a book which would do a fact check on modern poetry. What did you say? it’s all non-factual?
Poets could learn from columnists that the key to being a reactor is that you have to react in an uninhibited way and that you have to win the reader’s sympathy by being open and equal. There clearly is a zone where that subjective but uninhibited pattern of reaction is acceptable, and it relies on two people being close to each other. Clearly this safe little world of facilitated narcissism is familiar to everyone in a western-type society, and the problem is not that readers can’t get there but that poetry doesn’t help them get there. A newspaper like the Observer is full of different kinds of egocentric and non-factual signal, verbal or pictorial. Poetry is just one kind. Many pages of that newspaper are advertisements, and these are even less prone to fact-checking than the poems – and they are the most indulgent, narcissistic, personal, etc. To be fair, they are not allowed to contain misleading statements– they are regulated (even if the whole point of their project is to mislead). I suspect the poems are closer to the advertisements than they are to the hard news.
A question. Does a poet need a unique sensibility, and lens through which they view the world, so something specific, or would it have the same effect if they were just generically disinhibited? Columnists seem to get there by blurting out things which most readers, certainly most journalists, would find too superficial and too crude. But if this lowers the barrier of inhibition and gives people permission to speak, it releases material which genuinely changes the situation.

(46) Colour of the bottle
Two comments starting from Roy Fuller.
With Fuller, the point really is a tiny shift of a battery of lenses. He is writing about Doubt and each shift is reversible – the circuit never goes into a locked state. This takes me back to a zone of Stalinist critique of art – the argument that a book about the Soviet fleet, let’s say, is more important than one about tiny shifts of sensibility within one human soul, just as x thousand tons of steel weigh more than one human. But I never bought that Stalinist line, and I think that to be with modern poetry you have to give up this argument by weight. We are interested in the soul here.
Another argument is that each poet has a unique lens through which they see the world, and that the core of the poetry is the hue of the lens. It is like bottles of spirits and liqueurs, back-lit, illuminating a bar with exotic colours.
The second comment is that I was very late to get what Fuller was about. It was not until 2008 (? date not recorded) that I found the right psychological position through which to read his poetry. This widened my knowledge. I am not saying that all his poetry is good, I am sure that he lost his vigour in the early Sixties, but in the Fifties he was just about the best poet writing. The quality of doubt was primarily addressed to the British Empire as capitalist state Number One, but extended later on to the process of the poet’s own mind.

(47) humble witnesses
I am too tired of oral historians telling me that I want to read “unofficial” testimony, even if the witnesses are factually mistaken and visibly wrong in their interpretations, to get excited about the “authenticity of the ignorant” when it comes from poets. However, this is something most poets definitely have an investment in. It is almost a “negative space” view – poems are found wherever the news media give up (in parallel with poetry starting where the loud discourse of advertising falls silent). This line sheds light on the boundary that poetry fits inside. It is accompanied sometimes by the thesis that what powerful people say is always self-serving, so that it can be omitted from the record. This is separate from the idea that what happens in the centre (or in big institutions) is irrelevant to “the human essence”, which only happens among ordinary people.
I remain convinced that what happens in Westminster, Whitehall, and the City of London is important, and that writing “the annals of the parish” is not necessarily important or interesting. The analogical argument, that poetry is small-scale, peripheral, and ignored, and therefore what is peripheral is supremely important, does not sway me. Maybe the peripheral is simply peripheral.
Fuller wasn’t at the centre, but he did understand how the institutions worked.