Saturday, 22 December 2018

Logue  addition: the surface meaning 

I looked at Logue again while writing a talk about gay themes in 20th century poetry.
Logue made no reference to any gay identity in his autobiography, but other information suggests that he was gay. So this is “quasi-non-factual”, or similar.
When I wrote about Logue’s Homer translations (material included in The Long 1950s), I interpreted the choice of subject in terms of a satire on militarism. Satirising the expedition to Troy followed up Logue’s 1950s poems on British troops being sent to Cyprus for a dubious war. Many years into the project (which began in 1959), dubious wars, with British participation, saw invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003.
Is this enough as a motivation for a project which stretched over 40 years and amounted to some 400 pages? If Logue was writing an anti-imperialist poem, would he have left out, as he did, any material making an argument against 20th C imperialism, and spelling out the purpose of his poem, which actually remains inexplicit?
I think we can also see the long series of combats as a parade of male beauty and self-adornment, which expresses a gay aesthetic by turning young men into glamour objects. Endlessly, or at least serially, we see young men, showing off their physical prowess, exhibited for our gaze. The patient description of their dress and equipment is probably unique in modern poetry. We might be looking at all this detail, not to support hostile feelings about the aristocracy, but as expensive pin-ups.
Two parallels led me up to this change of view. Louis Aragon’s La semaine sainte is a novel about the painter Gericault taking part in the campaign of Napoleon’s army just prior to their utter defeat at the battle of Waterloo. A lot of the characters are dashing young cavalry officers, wearing brightly coloured uniforms and riding spectacular steeds. There is no apparent reason why a Communist would choose this subject, which has no relevance to class politics. But if we see it as a gay writer describing an endless series of brilliant young men wearing ornate and expensive clothes and trappings, it makes more sense. Secondly, I was responding to Christopher Whyte’s remark that George Mackay Brown staged a remarkable number of deaths, one every three pages (roughly!). Whyte asked why this was, and the answer (for me) is a peculiar eroticism of persecution, whereby sexual feelings towards young men are tangled up with a sense of punishment and doom. The feelings themselves attract punishment, and doom or “civil death” is the fate of the homosexual in a mid-20th C society. Having grasped this for Brown, I gradually came to see that the same pattern prevails in Logue’s version of the Iliad, and he was describing a vast series of glamourised deaths. The deaths are the climactic moments, and it is significant that these scenes mainly concern athletic young men.
We could also think of Cecil B De Mille. It was said that de Mille was the director who discovered the bathroom. Even in the 1920s, his Biblical epics had a strong element of sex, and there was a double basis for his popularity. Despite his overt interest in religion, he created a classic moment of eroticism in the scene in Cleopatra where Claudette Colbert appears in the bath of asses’ milk. If we see Logue’s Iliad as a Bronze Age epic of the Near East with a foreground morality and an emotional foundation in spectacle and eroticism, that brings it close to the Hollywood line of films about ancient history. Logue is economical with footage of women characters. If you imagine the Iliad remake as a film, and imagine yourself in the canteen with all the actors, then what you would be seeing is a throng of glamorous and narcissistic young men. This speaks for itself.
It could be hard to explain to someone why 20th C films expressed sexuality in terms of women unclothed but submerged in a bath, or ranks of young women kicking their legs up in a chorus line. Everything gets displaced– everything profound loves a mask, as Nietzsche said. It certainly is hard to grasp how AE Housman expressed erotic interest in young men so often in terms of murder and hanging. Mackay Brown unmistakably repeats the poetic pattern which Housman established (and which he took in part from homosexual Hellenistic epigrams of the Greek Anthology). I find this hard to grasp, and it yields to patient work on iconography. The emotional intent is deliberately concealed, and is complex in nature – de Mille made everything visual and explicit, rapidly graspable, but the opposite is true of modern poets. Brown may be using physical death as a metaphor for doomed love, and for love which was never allowed to flourish at all, but was cut short when only a thought, a fantasy. The epigrams are often about the death of a young man – this cannot be reduced to “the eroticisation of violence”, instead the subject is the poignancy of loss and of flowers caught by a frost in the spring.
The process of civilisation has been said to be follow a course in which basic impulses are subject to more and more elaborate restraints. This produces complex cultural achievements. What if the basic impulses are being restrained by fear? That could produce even more complex cultural achievements, in which what is precious and significant is carefully hidden. What was designed to be ambiguous can never be reduced to plainness and certitude. It is possible to be wrong – but, at the same time, just reading the surface meaning cannot be enough.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Critique of the metropolitan elite

Intro. This follows up previous postings on Ken Smith, and on the relationship of UKIP to poetry (March 2017 and November 2018). It discusses the rejection of the most cultured tier of individuals as those most qualified to judge poetry, and suggests a link between this and a rejection of professional politicians in politics. It discusses the roles of Bloodaxe and Carcanet as the major publishing outcome of the 1970s turmoil, and why these publishers rejected poetry written in the modern style.
The rise of UKIP to win 18% of the vote in the 2015 general election, and the results of the referendum on membership of the European Union, were generally analysed by politologists as reflecting the protest of individuals, who felt themselves to be left behind, against metropolitan elites and their narratives. Xenophobia was well to the fore, but this was not the original policy platform of UKIP, and hostility towards an elite at Brussels was partly a reflection of hostility towards bankers and the political class at Westminster (provoked by the MPs’ expenses scandal). UKIP voters were, statistically, much less well educated than the population as a whole, and UKIP stood for rejection of the idea that “the highly educated should rule because they are better qualified to do it”. This attack on elites fairly obviously mirrors a line in poetry which also rejects the elite and which has expressed itself typically through jacket texts and passing grumbles. Because the anti-metropolitan groundswell in politics is so important, it attracts symbolism: if you use vaguely anti-metropolitan symbolism, it is going to be attracted to the structure of feeling around the rejection of the main political parties and of parliament, because that structure is so big that its gravitational attraction is not resistible.
The inability of the “managers” to conduct the business is shown in the difference between the poetry which sells and the noble discourse around poetry. There is a stratum which has as features low prestige- low participation – high resentment. As it follows, that layer also does not ascribe prestige to the high-prestige literary taste and its owners. The UKIP constituency is typically resentful and non-participating – a refuge in sulking which is very common in the poetry world. There is a layer which has high resentment but also, it seems, high-prestige manners.

As I write, you can go into a pub and find the house magazine of the corporation which owns it denouncing the metropolitan elite, as if whatever they said was inevitably untrue. The editorials by Tim Martin, in the pub hand-out, bear an unmistakable resemblance to the Introduction to Poetry With an Edge. The Seventies saw a swarm of small to micro poetry publishers, but the ones who survived to publish, eventually, hundreds of titles were Bloodaxe and Carcanet. Arguably, the presence of these two new firms, trying to break new poets in the High Street, was the tangible outcome of the Seventies. Their achievements were great in terms of keeping the shelves filled and finding an alliance of sensibility (which manifests, yes, as a market). The period after 1968 saw a polygon of ideals where hippies, Marxists, the New Age, Blake followers, new myth, and the experimental freedom of the alternative poetry vied to be at centre stage. Carcanet and Bloodaxe each represented a literary myth, but did not take on any of these ideals. The decay of these ideals has been taken as way of defining the 1980s. To understand the 1980s, you have to study Carcanet’s position statements, and the introduction to Poetry With an Edge. To put it another way, you can learn a lot by superimposing the two “alternative” sections of the new british poetry (1988), the Carcanet 1983 statement Some Contemporary Poets, and Bloodaxe’s Poetry with an Edge (1988). While they all cover the same period and its new poets, they barely overlap at all. This gives a significant way of defining the literary elite – if we see these three artistic proposals as offers to function as an elite, we can conclude that every elite is a minority and there is no consensus. In fact, the elite is hopelessly split, and in this new configuration looks remarkably like a market-place in which many brands compete for attention.
 I am writing about these firms with relation to the 1980s, and it is clear that their policies changed radically with time, so that generalisations true at one point cease to be true. To put that another way, their poets also changed with time.
Bloodaxe started from Ken Smith, and made his limitations into a perimeter. The jacket of The Poet Reclining quotes Charles Boyle saying “many (of the poems) have the harsh simplicity of Anglo-Saxon or other  oral verse.” To get with this, we have to get with a formation of taste. Such a formation holds assets which rise or sinks in value with the passage of time. A review of a 1960 book by John Holloway says “The poems display a sensuousness, a feeling for tangs, hardnesses, distances, for the muscularity of nature.” Thirty-six years later, the cover of the 2018 Smith Collected also says the poems are “muscular”. This formation shares, roughly, a belief in terseness and gruffness as masculinity and authenticity. Writing in stone is especially good because of its stiffness and, if vertical, erectness. Anglo-Saxon style features are admired because they are irreducible, terse, and, obviously, highly masculine. I suppose that in the 1960s reviewers explained what they wanted and poets tried to give it to them. The end of the age of ideology left reviewers clamouring for poetry about objects and physical work. A point of culmination might be the passage in part 1 of Briggflatts (1966), where the poet says, rather sententiously, that his message must be carved in stone because anything else is too soft. This equates poetic significance with stoniness. Descriptions of objects are admired and either introspection or abstraction are seen as anti-poetic: language has to stay with the concrete even if human beings flourish in feelings and ideas. This formation includes an admiration for the working class, seen as authentic because its members deal with objects and physical problems demanding strength. They take part in struggles. (This version has a male-only working class and they work only in demanding physical jobs.) Their distaste for abstraction correlates with a lack of abstract values like wealth, and of cultural capital.
It is not clear to me why Close Reading made certain moments of the poetic cycle unfashionable. It would be possible to read a text closely and favour any aspect of it. But evidently Close Reading disfavoured poems about ideas and feelings, and poems about objects and sensations, which apparently were more verifiable, and involved the poet’s personality less, were less subject to collapse in the classroom.
I quoted that book jacket because my perception is that this ideology about objects being more poetic than abstractions belongs to the early 1960s and late 1950s. This is part of my feelings of doubt that you can claim it as defining the new poetry after 1980. Bloodaxe have claimed at various times that they have caused a revolution, and that Ken Smith, their figurehead, was “the godfather of the New Poetry” and “inspired a whole generation”.  These claims seem implausible to me, and the way they are made, without any detail or argument to back them up, is typical of populism, where statements are not based on truth but on wishes. To make that clearer, the proposal that the new poetry of 1980 to 2000 was inspired by Ken Smith, and that the new thing during that period was represented by Bloodaxe poets, rather than by poets using innovative language and reacting to theory, is not credible. These are ideas which only work in connection with property – the context of selling a book and of claiming territory for the author (whose book you are trying to sell). They are quite different from statements made because they are true. To get at the real history of our lives, you have to strip away the territorial claims and self-exculpations.
This version of terseness could evolve into dumbing-down. That is the way you end up going when you discard ideas (as middle-class nonsense, or whatever). I think that some ideas have arrived since Anglo-Saxon times, which they did not have words for. In linguistics, a word is correct because a speech community accepts it as such, and in poetry we have to accept the power to legislate of social formations, small communities. The “objects are more authentic than ideas” party have had their successes, over the past fifty years. Of course, what Astley did as an entrepreneur was significant, and as we recover his commercial sensibility, in a vigorous propaganda through book jackets and so on, we find that it was popular. His ideology, with its components of a theory of style change over time, of authenticity, a local vocabulary which embodied preconceptions about poems, the pattern into which it fitted various contemporary poets as assets or witnesses, is a part of history and needs to be recovered. The cover of the 2018 Collected has that nutty claim that Smith inspired “an entire generation”;  I think we could rewrite it to say that Smith “inspired Neil Astley”. I am not aware of any significant poetry inspired by Smith. (With an exception – Ranter is based on Fox Running. But Barry copied Smith because he thought he could do better, at every level.) I understand that Astley hates the word “dumbing down”, but it is possible both to attribute a downer than down quality to much of Bloodaxe’s project and to admire him for reaching a new market which didn’t want difficult poetry. I started out as a rock fan, and the idea of simplicity and repetition doesn’t have the same negative charge for rockists that it does for academics.
The Introduction mentioned has two passages in which Astley dismisses the poetry which existed before Bloodaxe came along to legitimise the territory. One deals with literary poetry, one with the Alternative. The latter presents him as sitting harmlessly in the pub when someone sells him a magazine in the modern style, which he reads and finds to be full of meaningless advanced experimentation. Even though he claims to have only seen one issue of one magazine, he decides that this sums up a whole sector, and gives us 250 words to display his expertise from this wide exposure. The detail about him encountering this magazine shows that his knowledge is worthless – we cannot take it as of any value, since he has only seen one issue of one magazine. In fact, his belief that it represents the Alternative is unconvincing, since that would imply he knew the field and could recognise whether the magazine was ‘alternative’ or not. The subtext is “you’re stupid like I am”. The focus is featureless warmth, it is an anecdote about Astley and not about the range of poetry being created in Britain. Ignorant yet authoritative– this is the authentic Farage touch. It is hardly surprising that he does not say “in selecting poets for Bloodaxe, I looked for a style which had already been around for 20 years” – this would imply an overview which would imply possession of knowledge, and he is keen to present himself as someone who does not have knowledge. The fact that he does not mention the name of any older poet, of any anthology of older or even contemporary verse, or any name of any critic or magazine discussing modern verse, shows that all that connoisseurship, that scholarship, is meaningless to him – his ignorance qualifies him because it means that he does not share in the fatal flaws of the elite. Culture corrupts those who practice it.
Carcanet seized a literary wish-world in which there would never be any dumbing down, there would never be any breach between new poetry and the internalised love objects of classical English literature, where every text would have been made to withstand Close Reading, where there was no trace of invading Pop culture, where the poets stood up to moral examination and could defend their work as acting out a set of moral values. It would not invite mediagenic poets. The poetry would be free of the narcissistic pseudo-spirituality of Beat. It would be free of drugged/guru explanations of the cosmos. It would contain precise observations. All these values enacted inhibitions and the cumulative effect blocked off most poetic impulses. The aggregate was profoundly attractive and by being stable created an emotional place which created a following, a company to be found in that place. The word neo-conservative was uttered. With Carcanet, the myth is about conservatism. Carcanet gave a robust valuation to the assets or beliefs which their market, of Eng. Lit. Academics, already possessed. This consensus was hesitant about the British Poetry Revival (and also about the avant garde of the 1940s) and was not necessarily looked up to by the wider poetry market (their ex-pupils).
Bloodaxe also offered a wish-world. Once you have piled up assets like {gruff, authentic, Northern, hills, Anglo-Saxon, hard, rugged, physical, working class} a significant fraction of the audience have already surrendered. It was an emotional place which many people wanted to spend time in. This line flourished in Stand, which Smith co-edited in the Sixties, and in the North. Smith got it from Jon Silkin and Ted Hughes. It flourished, from 1978, in Bloodaxe Books. It took on Bunting as an anti-abstract poet but rejected everything else about modernism. Later, it took on Smith and Pickard but rejected all the rest of the New Thing of the Sixties and Seventies, as defined by Mottram. It was puzzling how a style which in Smith was an expression of poverty and alienation, even nervous breakdown, could be presented in many younger poets as normal and even desirable. Perhaps it was asserting regional identity by discarding all the innovations of the previous 20 years – the metropolitan sacrifice. Fine words did not flourish north of Trent.
If I keep going on about book jackets, it is because I see them as part of the retail experience, which is one of the core social events of poetry. There is a gap between books about poetry and reviews, and another gap between reviews and jacket blurbs, but perhaps the blurbs are the closest to what readers want and find most persuasive. That is, shoppers may regard the blurbs as monomaniac distortions and partial truths, but they may not identify at all with the reviews or history books (which are usually 20 years behind the times). I think it is likely that there are no books which record the artistic ideology of Bloodaxe, which is clearly documented through their book jackets. Jacket texts record a certain history of British poetry, covering a wide area which never makes it into the formal, academic record at all. They describe thrills which aren’t actually available in the poems, but that is a trace of desires and fantasies which is of value in itself, and could even trace the designs of the poems. The jacket may, therefore, supply a way of measuring the failure of the poems. Further, the way the blurbs change traces a chronology which we should certainly be aware of. Things do change from time to time!
The anti-elite position is acted out in verse by Ken Smith and Peter Reading, particular. Smith attacks abstraction, in an interview. He says “I tend to avoid the Latin words. I tend to avoid the abstract words. What I like is the concrete image for things and Anglo-Saxon provides that all the time.”. This carries the latent anti-elite nisus. The people who understand abstractions are obviously educated and metropolitan and in positions of influence. They are part of the elite. This gives us a new idea of stylistics – we can equate use of advanced and differentiated vocabulary with acceptance of elite values. Conversely, use of repetitive concrete vocabulary may be a protest (or a sign of limited intellectual skills). I doubt that abstractions are meaningless, and I think further that the natural state for humans is to master abstract nouns, to be self-conscious and to record the reasoning which is inherent in that state, to have feelings and to interrogate them, to know other conscious humans and to engage in argument with them. To avoid this domain of language within poetry is to simplify natural language. Eschewing abstraction is a form of purity of diction which, like other purities, paints poetry into a corner where it must repeat gestures. However, the silencing of elite language is also a criticism of the people who use elite language. This is more to the fore in Reading, whose entire work can be seen as something deliberately ugly, linguistically damaged, full of unresolved conflicts and frustration, and as an attack on the people in charge, the ones who offer harmony as a way forward. His poems do not display reasoning because he dislikes the people who use reason. He is psychologically close to the UKIP camp.
If you eliminate abstract words, you come down to something chthonic, archaic, deprived of the modern senses. The purging of Latin and French vocabulary is the clearest expression of resentment of elite innovations and Continental influences. It extends the resentment back beyond the EU accession, into the Middle Ages. Foreign things are inherently wrong. The Bloodaxe book on Ken Smith (You Again) makes much of the Anglo-Saxon quality of his work, also in rhythm. This is seen as authenticity – but not as fear of the French. (To clarify – domestic elites structurally have skill in French and Latin vocabulary, and the protest is against domestic elites. It is not at all a protest against French people, Normans, or Romans, but about British people.)
 It is characteristic of a populist resentment that it ignores differences between various sectors which it wants to attack. But it is characteristic of elite individuals to differentiate themselves as much as possible, using and re-using the fine distinctions which Bourdieu talks about.

Education is bound to meritocracy and is seen as hierarchical by the people inside it, who manage it. It follows that some intellectual assets are more valuable than others. It follows then that some assets in reading and talking about literature are more valuable than others. It seems fairly clear that Theory is regarded as more prestigious than scholars who merely describe texts and assess their artistic qualities. The advent of Theory was tangled up with the student revolts of 1968 and adjacent years. The reaction of scholars of older generations to these events, French theory and students denouncing their elders, was not always either of welcome or of submission. The advent of a new elite did not see the elite in possession willing to withdraw. The role of theory is to separate high and low in an industry where ranking and assessment are one of the central, daily activities. What stands out more clearly in this educational context is that those with the top assets believe in hierarchy and those without them believe in solidarity.
I found a series of articles on Fascist writers in PN Review in 1978-9. The series seemed to express a passive-aggressive stance. The series seemed pointless because it was going back to the Thirties, and obviously avoided dealing with the situation of 1979, surely full of fascinating and creative poets. PNR was not a pro-Fascist magazine in the broad sense – they weren’t even trying to clear the names of those shunned figures. Schmidt had left-wing sympathies, although he did not like hippies. But they certainly wanted to undermine the people who saw connections between ideology and literature and wanted political readings of literary classics. For example, who wanted literature to promote change in society, and literary scholarship to promote changes in culture. The series seems to be drawn by guilt; breezy left-wing thinkers who denounced writers for backing Hitler and Mussolini are being framed as villains for doing so. But the concept is not to vindicate the writers who got into fascism when it was lucrative to do so – guilt is not being denied and is actually part of the appeal. There seems to be a vicarious quality about this– it speaks for conservative and middle-aged academics who know they aren’t very progressive or brilliant and who resent having their failings being called out. The central point is that they don’t disagree with the accusations– the emotional appeal starts with guilt and is a way of soothing it.
People who can’t compete, culturally, want a refugium where they are protected from losing. The idea of refugium applies even to literary academics. I think quite a few people felt that the gurus, first of all, (later, the “post-structuralists”) were brilliant and opening new worlds, but they personally had no ability to do that and wanted a safe place where they didn’t have to encounter these radical ideas. I spoke of featureless warmth as something distinctive for populist discourse. That is, closeness is offered in the absence of evidence or argument. There is a favoured spot for someone educated, where they believe that people who know more than they do are distantiated and inauthentic, people who know less than they do are locally bound, ignorant, and confused, but people who know what they know are simply in the right place. You can see that it is uncomfortable to have any other view of the cultural geography. It is possible that poetry, in the contemporary condition, offers a remedy which reassures people of the value of their cultural assets: bringing comfort, at the expense of course of reducing doubt and making change less likely. It is also possible that we can relate the ideology of given publishers, their brand image, to a comfort zone and to specific valuations of specific cultural assets.

In that PNR series, Michael Hamburger wrote very interestingly on Gottfried Benn. Benn produced an ardently pro-Nazi lecture in 1933. Then he found out that they regarded him as a degenerate. And he had a publication ban. If Hitler says you are unconsciously anti-Nazi, does that mean you are anti-Nazi or that you are consciously pro-Nazi and, as an intellectual, it is your conscious beliefs which count? You do want to read this, no question.
Where grand theory offers idealism, an ideal society (even if after a thousand-year delay), it is clear that populism does not offer ideals, or ideas. It is plausible that populism is involved with feeling of shame – positions which the liberal thought-world condemns. The populist response is not disagreement but resentment with agreement. They do not feel pride in cultural assets which they do not possess. They think their assets are inferior.
I suppose that a whole sector of poets is separate because their poetry comes out of idealism and theory. That is, they have the ability to move from abstract thought into a poem. They have speculated, and their style is what speculation gives them rather than being something awkward and clumsy, the legacy of older speech. It is hardly in debate that this poetry is high, and poetry which merely reproduces memory, with limited patterning, is low. But it is also likely that poetry of this kind also evokes anti-metropolitan resentments, and that the whole complex of resentment which produced the soaring voting figures of UKIP is also engaged in the resistance to elevated poetry. The more this poetry reflects psychological freedom, the more it makes people feel their own limitations. Also, once you go there, you don’t really want to be anywhere else.
Bloodaxe took their name from a character in Briggflatts, and Carcanet issued what looks like an ideologically regulated version of modern history – Under Briggflatts (by Donald Davie). Davie had been an editor of PN Review, the public voice of Carcanet. The clamour for poems about the sense record, about objects and tools, was prevalent in the late Fifties and early Sixties. It is curious to see this wing where Bloodaxe and Carcanet touch each other. Both publishers claimed Bunting as the founder of modern poetry – incredibly. Bloodaxe merged Bunting and Smith as icons of modernity. Neither publisher had any space for the British Poetry Revival, for radical lifestyles, or for the poetic Left. (Some details – Bunting’s poem mentions Eirik Bloodaxe, king of York, and includes a passage about lines of verse being so terribly important that they should be carved in stone– with an edged tool, obviously. The flagship anthology Poetry with an Edge refers back to that edge, the stonemason’s chisel, and to the axe which Eirik liked to use on his subjects. Bloodaxe’s leading figures were Ken Smith and Bunting, fused together as poets who cut out all abstract words. In the first 120 pages of his 1982 collected poems, Smith used the word “stone” 100 times, and this is also fused with the writing in stone which Bunting longed for.)
Davie identified himself with the Movement, saw himself as its chief ideological manager, and seems to have had some animus against all the poets who arrived on the scene after the Movement (i.e. after about 1956). His book about poetry 1960 to 1988 is essentially a campaign to wipe out rivals. What is being offered is more like “Bunting is a legitimation for all the British poetry which survives after we have eliminated from view all the poets who could actually write”. This is a different proposition from a history of the time. On examination, the poets being excluded and off-mapped could be defined either as “poets influenced by American poetry” or “poets who want to write about ideas within the poem”. Briggflatts was consecrated as a poem about autobiography where ideas played no role, there were only experiences, primarily of objects. I think Bunting has been instrumentalised, and in more than one way. It is almost as if he had been defined as the decommissioned form of modernism, and by claiming him you could promote deeply unintellectual and in fact tedious poetry, while also claiming to be part of the modernist heritage. What set fire to the new ranges of the 1960s was certainly the American poetry (in Donald Allen’s anthology, as a gateway) rather than Briggflatts. Bunting’s poem of old age is too weary and resigned to set a new wave of poetry off.
What Bloodaxe and Carcanet had in common was a distaste for talking about feelings – the impulse was to describe objects or living things but strip them of any symbolic value. This was felt as an escape from ideology. Ideas and feelings somehow belonged together, and both represented an egoism, or risk-taking, which they were saying No to. The new poetry was not going to find its way away from “small presses” and into the bookshops so easily.
Carcanet included several different currents of ideas in the 1980s, and evolved steadily during their long history. The anthology Some Contemporary Poets was a programme statement for Carcanet as it was in 1983, not necessarily five years later. Under Briggflatts was a statement of position for Donald Davie, but, even though Carcanet published it, it is not necessarily true that other players in the Carcanet team shared its ideas, for example its negativity about poetry after 1960.
To reiterate, Ford and Goodwin’s book (Revolt on the Right) raises questions that need to be addressed, and the issue concerning them is less about the merits of a possible UKIP government than about the long-term decline of the major political parties. The decline of the elite can be connected with the greater political awareness, and better access to (non-print) information, of the lower classes – the decline of deference. This basic state of affairs will persist even if UKIP disappear from the scene. Leaving the European Union is an issue which has pitched the graduates (dare we say, graduate class) against the non-graduates, but it is only one of a whole series of issues which expose a similar opposition, because that opposition is structural and runs very deep. Conversely, the anti-elite current in poetry can carry a wide variety of messages, and is not straightforwardly an artistic error. Because the relationship between the highly educated and the bottom 40% is so important, or because modern life is so complicated that only theory can really help modern government, this object: abstract, or Germanic: Latinate, opposition is a stylistic means through which significant messages can be written.
Literature is, to generalise, about shared feelings displayed through symbolism. We have been talking about feelings which are inside the cone of silence, which were not shown in shared symbolism, which were private and to some extent shameful. There is another category, of feelings which were shameful but which are shared, which are the material of an alliance which can affect public life, and which are perhaps the inexplicit content of symbolism or the content of inexplicit symbolism.
There are two results for the attack on the elites. First, a shift of perspective whereby you see a group of culturally expert people as carrying out a function, not just being natural and seeking pleasure but as enthralled to other people and providing services to them which can be criticised like other commodities. People would not necessarily agree what these services do or should consist of. Secondly, the ebb and flow of political power. The investment of the elite is not secure. The elite as promoters may be faced with the refusal of the public to consume what they offer, or with surges where certain poets become unexpectedly popular. Commodities can fail in the market, and the retail arena is the decisive area. When waves of resentment billow up, from feminists, ethnic minorities, Marxists, outsiders, and so on, the ship changes course, and this is of great interest to participants.

As I write, the Brexit issue is tearing the country apart and even tearing both major political parties apart. Nobody really enjoys this level of division. The point of an education that makes you look at ideas is that thereafter ideas don’t become rigid and you don’t let them evolve into rigid political divisions. I find it incredible that any stylistic or cultural oppositions in poetry could be permanent, or that everything could rotate around them. In everyday speech, we use a mixture of Saxon, French, and Latin words all the time. Poetry is about shared feelings; its linguistic fabric is made up of moving semantic oppositions, but it is not an investment in permanent social oppositions.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Further thoughts about Ken Smith

(addition amplifying part of "Affluence")

I attended a talk by John Goodby (9 November 2018) in which he brought up three aspects of Smith: the frequency of the word “stone”, the problem of masculinity, and the hesitancy or indeterminacy In his work. This was at a “celebration” (or book launch?), in Leeds, where several of the people I spoke to didn’t seem convinced of the merits of Smith.

The next day, I looked at The Poet Reclining (the 1989 Selected) and came up with 100 uses of the word “stone” (or variants, e.g. “stony”) in the first 120 pages. This does seem like a serious problem, and we have to address it.

Smith’s first book was called “The Pity” and has a poem called by the same name which describes someone being made to watch while the Kuomintang political police garotte his wife. (This was Mao Tse-Tung, and his first wife.) As he watches he feels the pity drain out of him: “instead of blood I watched and saw the pity run out of me”. This is a central poem, and what we see as the story of The Poet Reclining is that the heart which has had all the pity squeezed out of it becomes a stone, and all the stones in the poems come from this original loss of pity. Mao told this story as part of a positive development process, a step towards political wisdom. We have to ask whether the stone is a heroic state, and attractive, or a barren substance, the deposit of pain and endurance. This is also the question of whether Smith’s poetry, with its simple and repetitive language, is attractive or bleak. The stone is both the thing which Smith hates for its cruelty and the thing he most identifies with, and sees as most authentic. Porter Wagoner sang a country and western song about "(Who taught who) the Cold Hard Facts of Life", and the stones, obviously, are these "cold hard facts of life". Is feeling cold and hard actually a feeling?

Towards the end of the volume is a poem, 'Fox in October', about the character Fox – detached from the main bulk of Fox Running (a 1980 long poem held to be Smith’s major work). It is about 80 lines long and includes the phrase “He forgave” 20 times. The problem isn’t just about re-using the same image, it is about direct verbal repetition – and this is a consequence of a neglect of the power of syntax, a shunning of the devices of language that relate things to each other, qualify them, find a pattern in them and conduct an argument. This connects to a wider subject of the use of parataxis, which affects a number of Seventies poets and deserves extended study. In Smith’s case, it represents a dislike of abstraction.

If you consider that hills are made of stone, the stones represent hills and upland ground. In England, this is mainly found in the North. The stones are a symbol of the North (and a negative of the “softness” of the South, home of alluvial lowlands and of literate culture). In Anglo-Saxon, many names include the element “stan”, or stone. They are all male names. Stone is a male substance, and a symbol of people seen as harder, stronger. They have rugged faces, with bones larger and more prominent, and gravelly voices.

I don’t want to get into the topic of indeterminacy. Robert Sheppard has published extensively on this, it was the subject of his doctoral thesis so he has been working on it for thirty years or more. His books on the subject cover a lot of ground and are basic to the understanding of modern British poetry. I just want to observe, first, that you can be indeterminate and still not be writing good poetry. Robert has so much interest in it that he has re-defined it as the goal of style, instead of being just a feature. Secondly, that it is decisive for Smith. When he writes about masculinity, the hesitation and uncertainty in his poems remove the possible thesis of an aggressive masculinity. Rather, his appeal is inseparable from masculine features like courage, terseness, even ruggedness, but he has withdrawn from the hero figure so common at mid-century and is even casting doubt upon that figure. Heroic figures inevitably win victories – they excel their opponents. Hughes’ voracious beast-figures constantly destroy other creatures, the weaker ones. Smith’s heroes never win.

Is using the same word 100 times repetitive? Of course. And this repetitive solution is a symptom of preceding decisions which blocked development and constrained a repetitive question and a repetitive answer. Smith has resort to myths which produce even simpler verbal contexts.

The jacket of Reclining quotes Charles Boyle saying “many (of the poems) have the harsh simplicity of Anglo-Saxon or other oral verse.” To get with this, we have to get with a formation of taste. I mean by that a coherent group of people for whom certain public statements hold true, which holds assets which rise or sinks in value with the passage of time, which seeks a certain kind of poetry and encourages poets to write it. A review of a 1960 book by John Holloway says “The poems display a sensuousness, a feeling for tangs, hardnesses, distances, for the muscularity of nature.” The cover of the 2018 Smith Collected also says the poems are “muscular”. This formation shares, roughly, a belief in terseness and gruffness as masculinity and authenticity. Writing in stone is especially good because of its rigidity and, if vertical, erectness. Anglo-Saxon style features are admired because they are irreducible, terse, and, obviously, highly masculine. I suppose that in the 1960s reviewers explained what they wanted and poets tried to give it to them. The end of the age of ideology left reviewers clamouring for poetry about objects and physical work. A point of cliché-fixing might be the section of Briggflatts (1966), where the poet says, rather sententiously, that his message must be carved in stone because anything else is too soft. This equates poetic significance with stoniness. Descriptions of objects are admired and either introspection or abstraction are seen as anti-poetic: language has to stay with the concrete even if human beings flourish in feelings and ideas. This formation includes an admiration for the working class, seen as authentic because its members deal with objects and physical problems demanding strength. They take part in struggles. (This version has a male-only working class and they work only in demanding physical jobs.) Their distaste for abstraction correlates with a lack of abstract values like wealth, and of cultural capital. This line flourished in Stand, which Smith co-edited in the Sixties, and in the North. It flourished, from 1979, in publications (and jacket texts) from Bloodaxe Books, whose founder seems to have been much stimulated by Smith (their first book was his Tristan Crazy). It took on Bunting as an anti-abstract poet but rejected everything else about modernism. Later, it took on Smith and Pickard but rejected all the rest of the New Thing of the Sixties and Seventies, as brilliantly located and defined by Mottram. In fact, it discarded Mottram’s message as a whole.

This version of terseness could evolve into dumbing-down. That is the way you end up going when you discard ideas (as middle-class nonsense, or whatever). I think that some ideas have arrived since Anglo-Saxon times. In linguistics, a word is correct because a speech community accepts it as such, and in poetry we have to accept the power to legislate of social formations, small communities. The “objects are more authentic than ideas” party have had their successes, over the past fifty years. The cover of the 2018 Collected says that Smith inspired “an entire generation”; I am uneasy about this, and not only because Smith’s ideals are generic. This line wasn't exactly new in 1966, with  Briggflatts, and it hadn't got any newer by 1975. It was not equipped to become the new poetry of the 1980s.

The ordeal is a significant image for Smith. Mao’s political education through torture is just the most striking version. Obviously, the more like a stone you are, the more you can bear an ordeal. Fox Running is effectively the tale of an ordeal – in this case torture by sensory deprivation and cognitive dissonance (“gaslighting”) rather than physical pain. Quite probably, the poet sees the workers and peasants as the most meritorious people, because they have suffered the most and so acquired the most merit. I say probably – but as the poems do not tolerate abstractions they don’t really tell you. It just feels like he sees history as an ordeal.

The really difficult thing to explain about Smith is how people enjoy his work when it is so repetitive and underdeveloped. I can point to folk music (including blues). Folksong is also repetitive, stylised, and without introspection. And we do like it. But these options limit the possibilities for development. This is where Fox Running happens – a breakout into a more complex form which could not be sustained without taking the linguistic fabric apart and modernising it.

Smith’s characters rarely seem to have any influence over their own destiny. This accounts for the lack of dialogue and reasoning in his poems – that kind of behaviour is just irrelevant, it doesn’t influence anything. We have to speak of a sociological group who are so gripped by poverty that they do not take part in the political process, and this is why they see the world as made of stones, unable  to be influenced. Smith gives a voice to people who don't vote and don't read a serious newspaper because they feel that change would not affect them and politics will always leave them behind. This is what gives his work authenticity: genuine poverty and genuine endurance. You can read his poems while having left-wing feelings, but the poems are terrifyingly apolitical, they don't believe that things have causes or that reason will explain why. They echo a world of people who do not have political hopes, and whose wealth is negligible. The readers of poetry are not within this world, but they respect its voice. That voice is organically expressed in folksong, which does not believe in causality but only in fate, not in human reason but only in grief and joy. Smith’s poems have some of the appeal of country and western, where the dullness of the language expresses the low status of the players and the authenticity of their testimony. All his objects are inexpensive ones. We can answer the question now – once you have piled up assets like {gruff, authentic, Northern, hills, Anglo-Saxon, hard, rugged, physical, working class} a significant fraction of the audience have already surrendered.

I thought to look at a poem by John Holloway, in pursuit of the fan-base of the word “muscular”. Here is one from his 1965 volume, Wood and Windfall. It is about stonecutting:

The severe sense: face
Without message, rebuffing from inward. Once
For an hour I watched the master mason lettering.
And the blade at its dry rising,
Coming out in a puff
As he butted the haft with a birdswing lightness
But a birdswing boldness. The feather and chip of the script
Flowing in a flutter: variety, gaiety,
A trickle of flowers down the stone in
Brightness, a lightness…
Severity
Made also this garden [.]
(”Severity”)
The last two lines are a bit obvious:

A spare, linear, elegance: message from
The chisel.

Sounds like that stone-cutting brag in Briggflatts, doesn’t it? But as it was published the year before ‘Briggflatts’ this is not influence – it’s just the kind of thing reviewers were asking for, in 1965. My impression is that Holloway was a much better writer than Smith, that his poem creates a series of unique moments through words modulating each other and Smith grimly repeats the same moment. As for sensuous – Holloway’s poem is sensuous and Smith’s aren’t. He never has a voluptuous attitude towards sensation: his poems are de-aestheticised. In a sense, they aren’t poems. But Smith has that authenticity, gruffness, bleakness. People like his poems and apparently don’t notice the repetitions.

Smith's interviews disclose events in 'Fox' which just aren't there in the poem – out of his linguistic reach. I feel that the weakness of Fox is in expressing ideas – Smith is so keen to reduce things to images that much of the plot is unclear. The images lack definition. The main character cannot articulate his feelings. The lack of definition makes it hard to say anything conclusive about the poetry but also makes it hard to find bottom when you are in the middle of the poem. In fact that is one of the core sensations when reading Smith: underdefinition. The only source of information on the situation wasn’t very communicative. Even at the end, you haven’t got very much. But as we saw, there is a poetic sympathy group which wants to define this inconclusive result as a victory. It is like a film with no soundtrack: it turns out that the range of clear visual equivalents for feelings is limited, and people do better expressing their feelings through words. We are used to being told that stupid poetry is good because it embodies femininity. About 90 times a week, actually. But here it looks as if we are being asked to ignore the artistic weaknesses of some work because the writer, via gruffness and rigidity, etc., is linked to masculinity. The masculinity is not explicit but we can’t explain the popularity of the poetry without it. What makes Smith work is a sense of doubt about being gruff and macho. What holds him down is the unwillingness to talk about ideas or feelings.

I mentioned that 'Fox in October', which should be the climax of the work, repeats the phrase "He forgave" 20 times. What is he forgiving? the main poem does not describe Fox as being resentful or say why he was angry with these 20 people or groups of people. Smith's grip on language wasn't flexible enough to let him establish that information. So the forgiveness is puzzling and underdefined. The repetition is a sign that the poet's verbal powers are inadequate. Actually, 'Fox' took him to his limits, and even if quite a lot of it was beyond his powers it is a vital poem because he had gone to that site of overstretch.

John also spoke about the influence of “deep image” poetry in Smith, and an essay by Robert Bly was cited (by another speaker at the event) as being annotated by Smith, as a statement he valued. Evidently, the reliance on images, such as stones, is typical of folk-songs. Such songs notably lack abstractions or introspective statements, they prefer symbolic images. Smith’s use of legends in poems can be seen as an extension of this folk-song style. The poems about heroic Amerindian figures (“The Sioux cleared from Minnesota”, etc.) are notable for using simple and primal images, and lacking sociological detail. The poet has very few concepts in common with the subjects, so concepts are thrown out. What remains is simple if emotive. It also resembles the writing in numerous Fifties Westerns in which Indians are major characters, so Broken Arrow, Taza Son of Cochise, etc.

The blurb for the new Collected advises us "Ken Smith (1938-2003) was a major voice in world poetry, his work and example inspiring a whole generation of younger British poets." It does not say which generation this was, and the phrase might actually mean "inspired Neil Astley". Astley founded Bloodaxe Books and their debut with Smith's Tristan Crazy was an important moment. I feel that Smith’s example has been used to cover up a line of weak poetry, where abstraction is chopped out as unpoetic and every situation is simple. He may even have helped to get this poetry going – as an editor of Stand in the 60s and as an adviser to Neil Astley. Of course Bloodaxe located a market for the style which they isolated, they made that market happy, but of course this style deserves to be critiqued, like other ideas, as a proposition about what poetry is. You can write poems which exclude abstractions, but you can't define the poetic as "that which is without abstractions" and you can't define modernity as "the exclusion of abstractions". There is an “interest group” which is simply wrong about how poetry works and where it should go. In about 1973, there was a whole world of advanced poetry in Britain, and Smith was wrong to overlook most of it and just go for the poets who were afraid of abstraction. This approach is still wrong. In Smith’s poetry, it is throughout possible to read the simple style as damage: the groan of a heart which has had the pity squeezed out of it. I do not believe someone telling me that this music of damage is what we want, what makes us happy, the destination we should be travelling towards.

As an aside, I think John and I agreed that Ranter is an imitation of Fox Running, which is what Neil Astley felt when Ranter was submitted to him. What convinced me was the stuff about radio. There is a page about shortwave radio in Fox. There is mention, at three points in Ranter, of characters communicating by radio – a completely unexpected event since they are all in the Middle Ages. It is logical for Fox to have insomnia, since his days are unused; and in the Seventies normal radio switched off at midnight, so that insomniacs used the shortwave (VHF) to pick up broadcasts to fill the night. He listens to radio Moscow and the American Forces Network. In the added poem, ‘Fox in October’, we hear “his ear to the radio noise/ out at the last edge of the little we know,/ in the dark of the planetarium". Radio waves run through your house without really having any connection to you. Radio telescopes pick up "noise" at the edge of the detectible, Fox is leading a life without picking up meaningful signals, where his brain is losing pattern. The whole of Fox Running is about disconnection. The indifference of cosmic, interplanetary noise to humans is the final extension of Fox’s inability to connect with London, to find a job, friends, or a home. The radio imagery is much more deeply and structurally embedded in Fox than in Ranter, and therefore looks like an undigested and unnecessary stray, or intrusion, in the latter poem. Incidentally, David Gascoyne’s Night Thoughts (1955) also has someone listening to VHF broadcasts in the middle of the night. It was just part of insomnia. Like Fox, he is afraid of nuclear war.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Turning back at the Threshhold


Had  a conversation with Khaled Hakim last night (9/10/18) after a reading. Discussed amongst other thing the affluence of women and ethnic minority artists to the poetic avant garde, in the past. The reasons for the lack of diversity in the avant-garde are impossible to disentangle, but the outcome is a Thing, it’s an object of discussion and I have thought about it a lot in the past year – which is why I think you can’t resolve it. However, if you look at Conductors of Chaos (1996), you find  5 female poets out of 36. (And zero “non-European immigrants”, or however you put it.) This shows a much worse (i.e. less diverse) situation than in the mainstream at an equivalent date, and furthermore attempts to assemble an anthology of the Underground poets who emerged after 1977 have failed because the pattern which emerges is now sociologically unacceptable (and not subject to admiration when developed in an anthology).
If you compare Conductors with an anthology which came out a year later and covered the same period (but from a neo-mainstream point  of view), you find that Conductors has roughly 14% women and The New Poetry has roughly 29%. Actually, the Underground was significantly more male-dominated (or, unattractive to women), and this is one of the things it is beneficial to discuss. It’s part of the picture – even if the only story that the participants want to hear is of “lonely and impoverished virtue”. (Further comparison. The 1988 anthology the new british poetry has two sections of alternative poetry. They contain 43 poets of whom six are female. These are almost the same figures as in Conductors.)
Part of writing about modern poetry in a connected way is that you realise that the result isn’t connected,  I mean that you can’t answer most of the questions which people could ask about “why?”
Khaled was talking about The Film-makers’ Co-Op and how Bob Cobbing had been one of the people who set it up (in 1968 or whenever it was). The film-makers, the London Musicians Collective (which meant free jazz, exclusively), and various poetry gigs, all happened in that old British Rail equipment depot in Gloucester Avenue. God knows how many times I went there in the Eighties. Times past counting. Khaled was involved (don’t know when, maybe from 1995 on?) in both the film-making and the poetry scene. He was telling us that the film-makers didn’t have this diversity problem, they had lots of ethnic minority people and lots of LGBT people as well. The problem just didn’t exist for that collective – or, the obstacles weren’t  off-putting for the young people who turned up wanting to be creative. So we didn’t get to the stage of making invisible obstacles speak and utter their names, but we did see everything going well for one branch of art –and badly for another. I found the contrast quite devastating to think about. I think people want to deny that any such obstacles ever existed. I also think that making the “silent rules” audible and subject to discussion, subject also to tweaking and reform, is going to be a feature of the arts scene in the next couple of decades, something which will be there but wasn’t there over the last 50 years.
I think at this point people think sociological awareness means “there should be a rule that anyone who doesn’t like me has to leave” and “because I wasn’t promised enough rewards for participating and didn’t participate the Scene should offer me fabulous levels of compensation for turning up at all”. It is not going to work like that, and these vain demands are a sign of an immature stage of what in maturity will be splendid and robust.
The New Poetry has Irish poets (11 out of 55 people). Conductors doesn’t do Ireland – this is just one of the differences which is hard to analyse. Most questions can’t be answered.

I used to spend time with someone who knew a lot of poets’ wives – she was a recipient for the gossip, and the social scene around poetry (Cambridge poetry) in a way that I wasn’t. She stated that most of the wives had a witheringly indifferent attitude towards the Cambridge poetry which their husbands wrote. Like, “if you aren’t going to get written about in the Observer magazine there is no point you doing it”. Or “you don’t get events put on at the ICA so you are a failure and persisting is just selfish”. It was disapproving tolerance and certainly not support and admiration. The advent of feminism meant that it was fashionable for women to define men’s private artistic interests as “egotistic and indulgent” rather than as a way to the truth. At an elementary level, the flocking of new women poets into the mainstream was the cause of the revival of the mainstream in the Eighties and of the defensive and cut-off situation of the poetic Underground. The discrediting of female art debilitated the innovative poetry scene because most of the innovative poets of the past had been male. There are a thousand stories and I don’t even want to tell all of them. Clearly there has been a past of women selflessly supporting unpopular male artists, reading what they did as a versions of a Saint’s Life. In history, saints’ lives stopped, at some point, being the most popular reading and listening matter – and maybe the male artist’s life also stopped being so central (and specifically, after 1980 or maybe even after 1975). This was bound to affect unpopular (”Underground”) male artists born in the 1950s. If you shed that mythology of art, it became undeniable that poetry had to access an audience, and that the only way to do this was to write in a very simple, open style, using  stylistic effects which everyone was familiar with because of their traditional nature. So it was that new women poets arriving on the scene in the Eighties overwhelmingly plumped for a mainstream style.

Explaining the male centre of the Underground through the lack of material rewards does not work when you look at the Film-makers’ Co-Op. Nobody could have turned up to that more than once without realising that everyone was broke and no-one was going to start making a living out of their “structural speculations” anytime soon. If people found it so attractive, it must have had something that poetry didn’t have. It’s reasonable to think that the very same people would have got involved in poetry if the public events had been equally inspiring (and inhibition-breaking). Thinking about it now, it might have been better for me, in terms of having fun and getting close to other people, if I’d got into film-making in 1981 and not gone on with poetry (which no-one published).

SubVoicive was a series of avant-garde readings taking place fortnightly (except during the summer) throughout the Eighties. It was stable, so it could gradually have built up an audience. Audiences were stable but tiny. They took place in London, a city of 8 million people, in the South-east region, which held probably 17 million people in all. Why of 8 million people did only 20 turn up? Once you explain this, it becomes much simpler to explain why so few poets (including Asian and female ones, obviously) didn’t want to participate. Crudely, a lot of eager poets who turned up probably saw the small audience, the primitive arrangements of the venue (upper rooms in a pub), the home-made quality of the publications, the lack of connections to a wider world, and didn’t come back. The idea of spending 30 years of endeavour to reach the level of non-success (failure?) of the senior poets in that world just wasn’t a big turn-on.
Reconstructing what someone saw, on a single visit, and why they didn’t come back, has become a Thing. Because you can’t get at the ‘lack of diversity problem’ without getting at why people said No. The lack of evidence is overwhelming – if people entered the pipe and went on for 20 years, you can easily get information about them. It’s cheap. But as for half a million people who saw the announcement for SubVoicive in Time Out, once, or every two weeks for decades, how do you get information about them, and why they didn’t react with excitement?
What I think is happening today is that people, especially would-be managers, are intensely imagining the threshold moments where people decided not to come in and join the scene. These moments could be very rich in psychological content, but they don’t leave any documentary evidence. My guess is that people take the key decisions at the point when they have the smallest amount of information. People who encounter the Alternative Scene once and say “no” have very little to base the decision on. Actually  the Alt Scene has generally been so close to invisible that you could only find it by accident. To read that little listing for SubVoicive, you would have to know that it was “the alternative scene” and also have a concept that there was such a scene in existence. It took me ten years, after I moved to London, to get involved with that scene. People want to ask the retrospective question ”what was the Underground’s recruitment strategy and what resources did they make available for new starts”, but that just exposes the fact that the Underground had no resources, was a “body without organs”, and didn’t have any policies or organisation. To some extent, people are inventing something that was never there in order to de-legitimate it.
This line of intellectual inquiry starts to overflow into the area of marketing. OK. You can’t do market research on a zero budget. No budget, no data. This could be an infinite discussion, because  without data you can never disprove any explanation, however stupid, and people will sustain their tawdry and self-serving fantasies for ever. Is that the ideal discussion? Ideal because never boring and totally inconclusive, maybe. The idea that nobody will ever be proved wrong is attractive.
SubVoicive wasn’t the only entry point for modern-style poetry, of course. It is likely that most of the gifted poets in London were absent from any SubVoicive event on any named evening. Modernity was happening beyond the edge of the Underground rail network, I suspect. It’s just a point to focus on.
The Underground had this exclusivity. And this determination not to get involved in star-myths. To deconstruct the idealisation of the Artist. Perhaps by achieving those goals it doomed itself to marginality, and incidentally to not achieving “diversity”. It blocked out the signals which novice creative people found most attractive.

Having reached the end, I am wondering if I have answered any questions at all. Oh dear. But maybe I haven’t disseminated any self-serving myths. That would be a start.

Friday, 21 September 2018




Silent Rules – history of the project
(Fulfilling the Silent Rules – another book about British poetry 1960-97 – published by Shearsman in September 2018 – out now.)

2002-3.
 I was approached. Not by the editor but by someone she knew, who described the kind of book they wanted. It was an American university press which wanted to set up a London office and an English list. They needed some titles. They don’t have to be nice to you. You rush off and do the work anyway. The message – passed through intermediaries – was that I had to write the whole book before submitting a proposal. This was in June 2002.
I was in year 10 of a long (uncontrolled?) project of writing books about modern British poetry and at year 10 I didn't have a book deal for any of the books. The initial idea was to publish something in America. The design I came up with was based on the idea that Americans have fixed ideas about British poetry, implying that there are only a few poets active and that there is a single British thing which all poets faithfully reproduce. So my concept was to give rapid accounts of 100 books to show that all generalisations were wrong and to list the assets which made the field significant and irresistible. So this was the thesis. The time-span was 1960 to 1997 because that was the perimeter of my project. Because it was meant to be a big-deal book, I felt I could ignore the prior existence of Legends of the Warring Clans and incorporated a dozen book reviews from ‘Legends’ into the text. (Legends was internet-only and set up in 2003, I think.) I didn't want to write the book. I felt I was over-committed to the poetry project, in view of piles of unpublished books, and the lack of rewards. I thought I was the natural victim, not being an academic insider and having views which were not conservative and accepted. I was probably going to get thrown out once the servants realised I was there. But it composed itself spontaneously in my head. Writing it down was hard, but all I had to do was write it down. So it wasn’t voluntary. And so I ended up with a book. Of course when I had written it the editor said she only wanted to see the contents page. And said no after seeing the contents page. So there we were. This was in 2003.
I was irritated by the exchange with the publisher but the book was an asset once written. By 2002 I wanted to get away from writing about poetry. The writing coincided with the build-up to publication of Failure of Conservatism. No time to rewrite that because I was busy writing 'Silent Rules'. Various other arrangements to publish the book fell through in a puzzling way. Time went by.
'Silent Rules' does not have a thesis because the aim was to be the first book that someone seriously interested in literature read about modern British poetry. The strategy I followed was to evoke the 'whole spectrum', so going for many descriptions of very diverse books, rather than picking a few stars or finding that one single style was the 'solution'.
The book does not mention chronology at all. This is because I had already done the analysis of stylistic change in The Failure of Conservatism.
The focus was allover, in the overall design, the tip to tip quality. This meant that any group of 100 high-quality books would do. I began with a huge list of books and had great problems getting it down to 80. I stuck at 120, that seemed just about right. Throwing books out was a strain. The selection has no higher plan. Sacheverell Sitwell wrote a book called Splendours and Miseries, which I liked. It refers to a French original, Splendeurs et chagrins militaires, by de Vigny, and at one point the pieces about 80 poets were headed “Chagrins and splendours”. I used to refer to them as “Chagrins”. When I was assembling the book for publication in 2009 I suddenly realised I'd recycled all this stuff from Legends and this wasn't right. The count of Chagrins was no longer 100, I am not sure there were ever 100 sections written. I have an old list with 75 titles and I think it is now down to 65 individual books plus 15 anthologies. Of these 51 were in the oldest version. In 2009, I also radically cut the book, so several chapters vanished altogether. The design became much simpler. Any themes except the major one of 'diversity' were removed. The selection was rebalanced to include more mainstream poets and more feminists.

In 2017, Shearsman agreed to take the book and I agreed with previous publishers that this was the right way to go. In January 2017 I got excited by reading back the book and devised a number of rewrites. I didn’t actually incorporate these because the length couldn’t really be extended and the book couldn’t be improved. It was more that I was excited about it all.
 
This is the final volume of the seven-volume set called Affluence, Welfare, and Fine Words. Why has the text not been updated to cover developments since 1997? This would have meant throwing out material I had already written and probably throwing out poets I was interested in. A printed book of poems is itself frozen and so it is rational to freeze prose that describes such a book. I wanted to calm the past rather than calming the present. (In 2002, 1997 was “just before now”, not yet The Past.) This leaves the other question of why the book is being published 15 years after being written. The answer to that is obvious, the alternative scene has almost no resources and it is a wonder if anything gets published. If the book swelled up to 500 pages, nobody would be able to buy it. I can see that people want to read about poetry after 1997, but I couldn't add it to this volume without throwing away what I wrote before. I prefer saturation of a predefined area – that is, the period up to 1997. 'Silent Rules' deals only with individual volumes and has no career surveys – just as well, since almost all the poets have published prolifically since 1997. The reviews will no doubt go on about the halt line in 1997, but that really wasn't up for negotiation. Anyway I think people are just too territorial when it comes to the present. The poetry world is not densely populated with dispassionate people. You are going to reach much more acceptable conclusions if you are dealing with the 1960s or 1970s – people are more willing to listen. So is there some magic line where the free-fire zone becomes the Past and ceases to be territorial? I think so, and that is the purpose of writing this series. The scene is febrile and dissident, a steady and frozen view is a good thing for it.

We are now in year 26 of the project. Technically, I stopped years ago. Maybe in 2005. 'Silent Rules' is the last part to come out. You can ask why I needed to do a seventh book once six have already appeared. I still want the function of “invalidating generalisations”. That is still fun. But also, this one gives descriptions of about 40 poets who are not in the other books. This must be a useful function.
How does Silent Rules relate to the other books in the series? The answer is that it includes a great deal of subject matter not included anywhere else, and which has to be covered somewhere in order to reach a complete picture of the time. At the same time, some poets described in Silent Rules also appear in other volumes. The set discusses 140 poets all told. I suppose you could argue for adding a career survey of all of them – what, another 500 pages? Completeness is just a notion.
The series of books is supposed to be 1960-97 but when I was writing in 2002 I inadvertently included work that was post-97, specifically by poets I was extremely keen to include and who wouldn't have been in the work otherwise. So there are some overspills.
Why “silent rules”? Evidently poetry is made of sound, in the form of speech, but is governed by rules which are not stated explicitly (and which have no accepted notation in which they could be shared). There is always an argument to be made that you don't need any prose about poetry, just access to the poems. If prose is helpful, this is connected to its ability to tease out and make plain the silent rules. You have to perceive the structure of a work in order to read it. The subtitle is “inside and out” and becoming an insider definitely involves knowing what the silent rules are. Although, to be honest, I didn't learn about poetry by reading prose, it was more by hanging out with people who liked poetry and noticing their reactions. Or, in fact, mirroring their reactions. How can you have critical culture when the core of culture is mirroring other people's reaction patterns? Don't know. Not my problem.

I had a feeling that writing about famous poets in a brief extent (1000 words) was relatively ineffective. So the very celebrated poets tended to get cut. This might give the effect of a collection of obscure poets – a cunning way for conservative critics to trash the whole thing. Certainly I wanted to place more figures into the landscape. I think there was some scheme of disproving generalisations by the avant garde as well –I was annoyed by exclusive and preconceived schemes of merit. I didn't think the key to artistic creation was so simple. The plan is in fact a race-course of generalisations. The course wins, to be frank. All the generalisations crash and their burnt-out carcasses are exhibited on billboards around the track. The facts come out on top.
The message is that poetic merit is scattered over the landscape and that loyalty to a faction is not compatible with full aesthetic principles and a thorough approach to collecting primary evidence. This message lacks kinetic energy – it doesn't define the role of Winner, and this is what motivates people. They find the egocentric and one-person view natural and the broad-spectrum view unnatural and frustrating. But really, it is the only message I want to transmit. Each individual poet gets a limited amount of space, but the “hero of the piece” is the entire landscape, the awe-inspiring span from one end of the poetry world to the other. It's not part of the 'depolarisation' campaign, but it is remote from the ideologies of any group of poets, because the wide spectrum wouldn't fit with that.
Does it follow from covering the entire scene that the report will be accepted by the entire scene? This is the problem, you can only carry out an effect of wiping out divisions in the scene if your voice is heard widely enough to affect the scene.
I have rewritten the book several times. Once it exists, the temptation to redesign it is overwhelming.
May 2018. After reading Robert Hewison's book Cultural Capital, I rewrote parts of the book again. This is ridiculous, but the point is to be as precise as possible. Changing something so long and so finished is exhausting – it gave me a headache. What I had written on arts funding and State attitudes was just not accurate. Hewison's book gives a glimpse of a much greater whole in which my feelings are insignificant. I can’t extend that glimpse for long, but it was compelling while it lasted. Hewison quotes a Runnymede Trust publication saying that out of the first £2 billion of arts funding from the National Lottery only 0.2% went to artists from ethnic minorities. He says on another page that the lottery funding panel was given permission in 1998 to give out more individual grants, which were only 2.5% at that point. If capital projects were 97.5% then grants to individuals cannot have been more than 2.5%. So 0.2% as a fraction of 2.5% is not so far out of proportion. Squeezing the real story out of administrative history is like fighting warthogs with your bare hands. If a large sum goes to repairing or converting a building, you can't say if it has gone to one ethnic group or another, because an arts building can be used by all kinds of people. No arts organisation is specifically or exclusively White. Funding panels don't like giving money directly to individuals, as infrastructure spend is just much harder to launch glib political attacks on.
I spent time struggling with this area and then cut it altogether. I bought the book which Hewison drew that fact from – he has made two mistakes in citing. (This is 'The future of ethnic minorities in Britain', credited to the Runnymede Trust, 2000.) What he reports is not in the source. The source says that 0.02% of the organisations funded had ethnic minority 'representation' on their boards of directors. This isn't really a measurement of anything. The managers don't produce any art. “Follow the money” is good but this doesn't tell you who got the money. Hewison's book is fascinating and overwhelming in its scope.

'Silent Rules' originally had seven more chapters, including 'Long poems of the 1970s' 'Parataxis' and 'Coherence and exceptionalism'. Because the book was over length, I removed these. These chapters are part of the work but because of size constraints they are coming out on the Internet and not in print. They are available on the www.angelexhaust.blogspot.com website.


There are some more sources.
Memory of the Drift. The piece is about a pamphlet which was published in 2001. This now appears as Book One of the work (overall title Memory of the Drift). A volume from Shearsman has collected books one to four, but there is a book five (published in Angel Exhaust 22).

Elisabeth Bletsoe, Landscape from a Dream. The on-line version has now been taken down but the poems are available in a volume from Shearsman also called Landscape from a Dream.
Toynbee. Four volumes of the 'Pantaloon' series appeared, but according to Wikipedia there are others unpublished.

Elfyn. Fiona Sampson says (Beyond The Lyric p.80) that Elfyn introduced free verse into Welsh. This is utter piffle. The first volume of free verse in Welsh was published in 1937 (Y ddau lais), and Elfyn began publishing in the late 70s. Gwyn Thomas was a striking example of free verse in the Sixties. There is an interview with Elfyn (in Welsh) in Taliesin (volume 141, 2010). This was published after my book was finished.

Chaloner. Angel Exhaust 22 is a special issue on Chaloner, with some letters between him and John Hall.

Kazantzis. There is an authors statement at http://literature.britishcouncil.org/judith-kazantzis .

JF Hendry. >>That the Cimbri spoke a Celtic language is attested to by the reports of Pliny the Elder (circa 77 AD) who stated that Philemon wrote that, the Cimbric word Morimarusa means the Dead Sea, as far as the Promontory of Rubeas, beyond which they name it the Cronian Sea (“Naturalis Historiae, Libri IV, xiii, line 95). The word “Morimarusa”, referring to the Baltic Sea, is composed of ‘muir’ and ‘marbh’ in Q-Celt Irish; ‘mor’ and ‘maro’ / ‘marw’ in P-Celt languages such as Breton and Welsh. Importantly, there is no Germanic word in any dialect that would even approximate these root elements (Wikipedia entry for “Cimbri”).<< Philemon wrote sometime in the 4th century BC. Unfortunately there seems to be little doubt that Hendry misspelt the name.

The book “Crow” is incomplete and there was a prose tale which told the story of Crow and was the frame for the whole thing. Hughes explained this at an appearance at the Adelaide Festival in 1976. The URL goes to a transcript of this talk.
This is not the framing tale but it does explain the story which the poems radiate off from. I guess people just made up their own idea of who Crow was. The poems went out without the frame and I think this was just a feature of cultural life around 1970, art had gone outside the shared frameworks but people didn't bother to make the explanations available. Alexander Walker writes about this.
Sigmois te. I quote a strange Classical text about what seems to be sound poetry in the 2nd century AD. I may have more information about this. This (as mocked in the prose account by Nicomachus of Gerasa) may be part of a ritual narrating a creation myth in which seven stages of creation become successively more shaped and more finished. The hissing belongs to one of the earlier stages – articulate language is seen as the classical mark of refinement, so that pre-verbal language-like utterances are symbolic enactments of the earlier stages. The hissing and so on is perhaps not such a mystery, but part of an orderly symbolic structure which by a surprising chance we can recover. There is a papyrus which includes instructions to hiss, crow, etc. at moments in the seven-part ritual. At the end of the ritual we reach language. There is information about this in Wolfgang Schultze's Dokumente der Gnosis.
A relative sent me a postcard showing part of a mosaic from the Roman villa at Brading, Isle of Wight, near Brading Haven. It shows a man wearing a tunic who has a chicken head. Don't get this, but you could expect him to make crowing noises. >>The cockerel-headed man is a unique feature of the mosaics. The mosaic shows the cockerel-headed man beside a building approached by steps, with two griffins beyond.
One older opinion is that he represents the gnostic deity known as Abraxas; however Abraxas is usually depicted with a serpent's tail as well as a cockerel's head, which makes this interpretation seem unlikely.<<

So much of the theory of the period describes poems that were never written and sensations that were never felt by any sensibility. The results are not everywhere equally rewarding. The theories, bursts of wild exhilaration, saw visions of cultural achievement which went beyond the real story. As propaganda evaporates, the best texts remain as residues and prove to be the real substance of the era. Brushing away the ashes of fantasies, we reveal the shapes of hard, determinate, finished objects, the abiding works of the time. If you populate all the squares, eventually you have the map.

Maybe the theorising can start once the substance of the time, achieved and outstanding books, has been understood. There may be silent rules composing the cultural field which permits poetry to be written and read. States of mind can be recovered from allusive language because we know what they are. Poetry can be original but cannot be arbitrary. Works created by the reader's participation have to embody a shared logic, unlike for example photographs.

Admission. I write about Kathleen Nott's Poems from the North, which was published in 1956 and so is outside our chosen time period. Why? Nott published a book in 1960 but it is much less distinguished than “North” and looks as if she had lost her nerve. So it has to be the 1956 volume. Nott wrote two really important books and absolutely had to be included in the project, so I had to throw out another book to permit this. I was looking at the 1950s and noticed 5 female poets I liked – Raine, Nott, Eithne Wilkins, Lynette Roberts, Audrey Beecham. Only one of these was still publishing in the 1960s. So one theme could be “poets who found the period too unsympathetic to write in”, and this would be a whole area of study (which I never looked at). People are getting more and more interested in the “silent voices”, people who never became poets or who wrote and then fell silent. This is connected to a project for changing society to reduce inequality, which is after all more important than just studying literature. I just read books that actually got written. Some of the silent rules could include “rules that poets follow in deciding to fall silent”. I didn't get into this and I am doubtful that you can reconstruct this emotional pattern for the 1950s.
A trawl of the Internet today revealed that Wilkins came from New Zealand and was married to Austrian translator Ernst Kaiser. It says the couple spent 11 years in Rome studying the Robert Musil archive and translating his great novel. Wilkins was born in 1914 and died in 1975. She was publishing poems from about 1934 to 1953 but never got a book out.

At one point I say that only one significant woman poet was born in the 1930s. Going back many years, Rosemary Tonks had carefully kept her age quiet, but Helen discovered a reference book which did feature it, and said it was 1932. But the obituaries of Tonks put it down as 1928. So that would be zero women poets born in the 1930s. This is a moment where we see the silent rules – you notice them when they change.
The cover of the new british poetry says it has 85 poets. After counting several times, I make it 84. I think one guy was in the selection, then tried to say that the poets get should get paid more money and should go on strike, then withdrew his own poems. So the count is wrong. This is my memory of it. He was a very very bad poet. He used the moment to write reviews of the book for at least two newspapers, saying it was no good and giving most of the space to praise of his own rival anthologies. Supermarket chateau sleaze-bag with sanctimonious notes?

'Silent rules' uses a method of counting overlaps and non-overlaps between anthologies to uncover silent rules of grouping, which allows us to guess at the assumptions that precede differentiation. This locates nine “clusters” of poets, a way of getting away from binary divisions. I missed the oral:written opposition, obviously present but not really showing up in my dataset, because I used books. Divisions like male:female and Scots: English are real in marketing terms but too obvious to reveal much. The really puzzling thing is the “stereo blindness” whereby the Mainstream and the Alternative are invisible to each other. It is good to find a count for this. For example, I used 5 anthologies to work out a selective list of Alternative poets – 70 names. If you take the 1998 anthology, The Firebox, it covers a 40-year period and has 122 names. But only 3 of the 70 are allowed within that selection of 122 names. There are clearly two different aesthetics in play. The point of counting overlaps is to provide objective evidence of this.
The count doesn't tell you why the split happened. To be honest, I don't know why it happened. It would be easy to explain why readers exploit all available resources, and why poets use verbal forms which the audience understands. The opposite is hard to explain.
Does this split still exist in 2018? I don't know. I think almost everything has been forgotten. Maybe that includes the territorial claims and the barbed wire. As I say in the book, a lot of the repressions of the mainstream disappeared in the 1980s. Writing a book in which large numbers of poets from several different aesthetic factions are included within one unifying conceptual space may not resolve these territorial limits to vision. It's more of a cultivated gesture, really. But that is the objective. Maybe my book will vanish because it wants to record a consensus when in reality none exists.

In theory, the poets who cross boundaries and appear in (say) five anthologies should be the best. My impression is that the most-selected poets are actually bland, featureless, smoothed down to pap, shallow in their choice of effects. This doesn't greatly support the project of effacing group boundaries. My impression is that poets do well by developing their personal style/ world theory as far as it can possibly go. You can't really have the developments without the splits. “I write just like everyone else” – well, you needn't bother, need you. But we could have cultural institutions, and reviewers, whose sensors accept a broad spectrum.

I looked at 15 anthologies which included 456 names. That may have been about 10% of all the people who published a book of poetry in that period, roughly 1985 to 1996. Interpreting the stylistic and aesthetic/social differences between the “clusters” means actually reading the poets. This was a large task and it explains why it took me 20 years to write a study of the period. The longer you look, the more you understand. (The count goes down to 400 if you remove Irish and American poets. Is it legitimate to remove them? not really, but my subject was “British poetry”.) The whole period, from 1960 on, involves many more than these 400 poets: I write about 65 poets in 'Silent Rules' of whom 34 weren't in any of the anthologies. There are longer discussions of some of the anthologies on this website.