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.)

 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 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 .

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.

Saturday, 8 September 2018


I have been looking at the Indo-European family of words for the quality slippery, English slip and slide. I got into this because there is a Welsh word sglefrio, slide and I wondered if this had an English source. This is conformed by the standard dictionary. I found this rather disappointing. There is another Welsh word llithro, which is purely Celtic (from sglib-tro according to the reference work by Walde and Pokorny).
They list a substance as the primary element of meaning, so smooth mud, slime, etc., with slip as a verb following the presence of this substance.
Something surprising is that the same root describes smooth things and sharp things. These qualities are very different for an English speaker. But this does not show a fault in the proposed set of relationships. Schleifen in German means 'grind', both to remove roughness and make a surface smooth and to remove extra material and make a blade or point sharp. The action of removing tiny pattern-affecting burrs of material can make a given object either smooth or sharp.

The dictionary article for *lei (or *slei) starts with slime and goes on through Gaelic sleamhann, 'smooth', ὀλιβρόs 'slippery', λείμαξ 'snail', schleifen, schlűpfrig ('slippery)', Latin litura 'erasure'. There are other entries for “extensions” of this minimal root (which rarely appears without extensions). Latin lino ('smear') has a nasal infix like hundreds of other verbs, in the present stem only. The perfect and supine are livi litum (interesting variant levi) and here we see almost the naked root. Lei genuinely is the basic root and these forms display it.

In modern Gaelic, liofa means fluent in a language but is actually sharp, not literally 'fluent'. Liofa should be the past participle of a verb liomh or liobha, and in fact there is a verb liomh, which means 'sharpen'. Liofa is common in talking about the Gaelic language, where the shrinking number of fluent speakers is a constant cause of concern. This is a distinctive assignment of symbolism in Gaelic and perhaps in Welsh. (The 1927 dictionary spells this liobha, which is pronounced the same way. Liobha is related to schleifen and presumably Latin limare.)

O'Huigin describes a word in Old Irish rind, which means blade but also mouth. The idea is that language is sharp and the mouth as the location of language is therefore like a blade. In Welsh, min means 'lip' but miniog means 'sharp'. This may not be a phonetic coincidence, it may be the same metaphor as in Old Irish.
Another word for sharp has an important range of applications to language: geur. Geur-cainnte is used to describe bardic ability, in a famous historical description of the situation in Scotland. Sharpness is the metaphor for a highly desired quality of language. It is not as simple as hostility, it means acuity as well.

Looking at 100 cognates within the posited *lei root shows a beautiful pattern. The strength of the IE idea is reinforced as one looks at the overall similarities across many languages. Quite clearly this pattern becomes simpler as we go back in time. But the point of origin of the pattern looks increasingly blurred. It is like an old photograph which is mainly damage to the substrate – within which real information is hidden. This follows directly from the path that was followed – the posited “Ursprache” is the last stage before knowledge vanishes completely, so inevitably part of the Ursprache is not known, a blur.
Walde-Pokorny defines the root as *lei and suggests that the real words we know about are built up by suffixes, variously -b(h) (slip), -dh (slide), -m (sleamhann), -t (litura). Besides this, most derivatives also add an s- as an affix; so that slide corresponds to Latin lubricus. The most naked form of the root shows in Latin lino and litura.
If I am correct, the reconstruction of the “*lei” root involves five different root suffixes. It is hard to avoid the impression that these are being made up ad hoc to account for original inconsistencies within the posited language. That would mean that the reconstruction method had failed – and perhaps that its object frustrated logic because it is irregular and disunited. We are applying a perfectly logical method to a subject which does not answer consistently; perhaps the efforts of scholarship have shown that Indo-European is not a solid object – perhaps a dialect continuum, perhaps a language in which different patterns were co-present with different frequencies. So the language of 3000 BC was complex – much of it was lost – what survives is simpler than the original – but has diversified while spreading through Europe to produce a new, secondary complexity.

I could not find the Russian word skolzkiy, (or verb skol'znut') in W-P, surely related even if that shows an irregular process of development. The real pattern may be even more irregular than they allow for. The root appears to include a -g- which gives rise to the k in skolz and the g in glide. (And the k in Norwegian sklie.)

We don't have any IE words, so the roots are the substance of our patiently acquired knowledge. It would be better if the roots were more clearly demarcated, or if the extensions which turn them into words were better understood or more regular.
There is a core problem which surfaces in the W-P entries for roots connected to slip. They list roughly ten separate roots but then admit, in remarks within the article, that some of these roots are extensions of other ones. So it comes back down to one or to two or three, in a frustrating way. The problem is that these variants do not fit together by sound processes which we can sustain by analogies, and also that they are too close to each other to be totally separate. The gaps can be made up by positing root extensions, but this has the fault of being arbitrary. For an English speaker, the idea that “slip” and “slide” are really the same word, is attractive and natural; but is there any other pair of words that shows the same alternation? The reality of the imagined suffixes depends on the frequency with which they show up; otherwise they are just invented solutions to a problem which has not actually been solved. The material is at once too rich, an excess of related forms; and too poor, as the relationships are not validated – even though there are so many IE relationships which we can validate, so many times. Walde-Pokorny does not admit that slip and slide relate to the same root. It seems likely that they are from one root, and that this is blurred or branching within Indo-European, and also that the words slick, sleek (and cognates) are yet another variant on the same root. Obviously, a slick surface is one on which you are likely to slip. Why don't these forms converge? Is the convergence we do accept partly the product of rules invented by scholars? What does half-convergence mean?

The three-letter (trilitère) theory about the rules of the Indo-European root eliminate *lei as a possibility. However, the consensus is that Ce roots do exist and the triliteral ideal is just a norm. Walde-Pokorny dates from before laryngeal theory was the standard model and takes no account of laryngeals at all.
Struggling through the examples reveals that there are almost none from Indo-Iranian, although quite a few from Slavonic. This gives another way of testing the kinship between the ten or so roots which W-P separate, so slip and slide. If they follow the same geography, it is more likely that they are indeed the same root. Without doing the number-crunching, I nonetheless suggest that they have very similar geography and are European as opposed to something older. One way in which a word pops up with many very similar forms, which are hard to relate to each other, is that it is a loanword from another language in which phonology and word-formation are strange from the point of view of the accepting language.

The big Welsh dictionary gives sglefrio as a derivative from English sclither (for slither). Sclither is a Scots form and I don't think it exists in the parts near Wales. So, a problem. I believe that sl- is Anglo-Saxon and the group of forms in scl- are Scandinavian loan-words. The OED gives sklither as a obsolete form of slither. I have much used a book called Sglefrio ar eiriau, 'slipping on words', i.e. getting words wrong, a book about Welsh poetry not written by Methodist clergymen.
I can't resist citing two Scots dialect words omitted by W-P. This is in the context of the basic element of the root being 'soft mud' and a collateral form in sleug-, sleuk. Scots has sleek 'mire, slime; miry clay in the bed of a river, the seashore'. Further, sleech 'silt; sea-wrack; the oozy, vegetable substance found in river-beds; slime; in pl. foreshores on which silt is deposited by the tide, 'slob-lands'.' OED says that slob comes from Irish slab, mud. English cognates of sleech would be slough and slack, a dialect word meaning swamp or soft ground (Gordale Slack and so on). We read that “much of central Belfast is underlain [...] by a deposit of soft grey mud, silt and fine sand with numerous sea shells, in particular oysters” known as Belfast Sleech. It sounds as if slob-lands have matured into high-quality sleech.

I read about these stray consonants in Szemerenyi's standard work of 1990. Szemerenyi says that the best work on them is still by Per Persson (1857-1929). I found Persson's book of 1912 – a thousand pages long, of which half is about the root-determinatives. He had published another book on the same subject in 1891, and the 1912 one adds a crushing level of detail and retorts to his critics. It looks as if Persson's tenacity and command of facts had killed the question – a century later, one can conclude that nobody was able to improve on him, and wonder how many people have read the book in the intervening century.
The issue is well summed up by James Clackson. He compares Greek kheo with Latin fundo and German giessen (noun form Guss) and points out that these look like the same root except that the expected d is missing in Greek. The d is called a Wurzeldeterminativ, or root extension. (German also has schütten, the same root with an s- prefix which we see in hundreds of roots.) We have 3 options here:
(a) kheo is not related to fundo
(b) the Greek word is damaged in some way (perhaps by vandals)
(c) the -d is a separate element which (like the s-) was attached in some cases but not all and whose meaning we do not know

Obviously, these root extensions have a bearing on the relationship between slip, slide, and slick. Persson piles up hundreds of roots in which these extensions sometimes appear. He says that virtually every consonant can appear in this role – which suggests that they are not elements of specific meaning (as -n- generally makes a root into a present stem) but more generalised. Thus, slip slide and slick are not differentiated by meaning (and the possible -p -d -k extensions are not signs which restrict or refine the meaning). Persson says that there is no known explanation for the extensions – they are simply there, like the endings for noun cases or persons of the verb. He believes they once had meanings. He does not comment at all on geography. Apparently all parts of the Indo-European world use the extensions in the same way. (Persson wrote before Tocharian or the Anatolian languages had been uncovered.) This could suggest that the phenomenon is very old, in fact primordial. The variation between slip slide slick looks like a geographical variation, but all the variants appear in English, which shows the contrary. Hypothetically, the source of Germanic could be a migratory war-band which had drawn recruits from different parts of the Indo-European dialect area, so that geographical variants all became established within one new speech community (which then separated from the source population). This would be like the captain:chieftain dualism, where a dialect variation in Old French produced two traces in English. There is no evidence for this, though. More geographical analysis is possible, but Persson did not stumble across any geographical patterns in his exhaustive work. This is a basic problem with any idea based on geographical variation. (Strike war-band, insert “migrant labourers in the sheep industry”.)
The unmoved validity of root-extensions makes it difficult to count Indo-European roots. What appear as ten articles in Walde-Pokorny could represent one root with interestingly oscillating extensions.

The s-mobile also appears in a root *ker, variant *sker-. This shows up in English as shear (as in shear through). This is obviously (obviously?) related to sharp. The -p is unexplained and so looks like a root extension.  

Thursday, 30 August 2018

catalogue of this site is: here

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Flower, yarrow, and the starry thistle: Michael Ayres and The New Pictorial Economy; a Premature Review

[this was written in 2003 for a website which has now taken it down – so I am putting it up here. It accompanied some of Ayres' poems)

It is sometimes best to view artists from a standpoint at an angle to their own standpoint. Texture becomes visible when the light falls at a slant. We see all kinds of detail we weren't supposed to. But often, it is good to view an artist from exactly the same angle at which they stand – to capture the data as a primary act of apprehension, the acquisition which will later enable us to think or talk about it.

I have decided to associate Ayres, Kelvin Corcoran, and Robert Sheppard, all born 1956-59, as a group. The name I have given to this group – as a handle – is poets of the New Pictorial Economy. Discussion need not be distracted too much by the fact that this group would logically include me, as well; something which needed to be declared, in order to lighten our load. We could possibly associate Jeremy Reed (b.1951), who exhibits tantalisingly varied developments of the same themes. Reed is the only one of this named group to have engaged with High Street success, the most prolific, the most artistically wayward (in the eyes of many) – and the most involved with pictorial glamour.

These poets had in common that they missed the revolutionary cultural upbeat of the 1970s, except as students and consumers of art; were sorely at odds with the New Right hedonism of the 1980s; have largely been ignored by criticism; became very prolific, perhaps reacting against rejection; explored large-scale forms; do not perceive a vital 'high-low' difference between poetry and rock music, and were formed by rock culture; and that they are fascinated by the new pictorial economy which fills streets and homes with images – and by the processes which developed those images, as cultural messages with overt and covert content. I often associate this sensibility with Tony Benn's two books of the early Eighties, Arguments for Democracy and Arguments for Socialism, where he swept the economy of information to the foreground of politics, arguing against the whole ownership structure of the information media, and exposing the political bias which subjected the content of the owned media. This is the pictorial economy – the system of mills and pulleys by which images are assembled, transformed in a lavish and highly capitalised way from their dull and dumb originals in the real world. Once you see an image as an idea (which means something visual, etymologically), you then ask whose idea is it - whose vision.

The poets in question often seem to be writing from inside a system of pictures – Corcoran's Our Thinking Tracts being an example of this. They also have a private and self-confident set of internal images as a basis for acute criticism of social reality and of the shallow images of affirmative culture.

This may not be the best name. Any name would have done in order to study Ayres in a landscape in which he is at the centre, rather than one where the centre is Black Mountain in the 1950s, or Cambridge in the 1970s, or Huddersfield in the 1980s, and the poet's essential traits register as amusingly deviant. Other names might work better. I first thought of Young Marble Giants, after a line of Kelvin's which appears just before one of Ayres' poems, in Angel Exhaust 10:

Young marble giants sleep inside us,
that virtue which fills the body with itself,
limbs and head emerging from stone
if only I could, as if to take a step.
O you islands of men and women.
(from Melanie's Book).

The line comes of course from the name of a band, one who appeared on Rough Trade records, were Welsh marxists (roughly), made the wonderful 'Final Days' in 1981, and vanished. I heard a rumour that they are still playing (and live downstairs from someone I know?), but in practice someone who knows their name belongs to a specific generation – the generation, of course, of the poets we are discussing. (The band took it from some guide-book about Greek sculptures standing on a headland somewhere.) I rather liked the link of visual art, politics, and rock and roll. However, the "young" bit is by now misleading. I liked the "giant" bit, too. I toyed with the phrase "lost marble giants". Oh well. The giants suggested a drama of idealism: a recognition that the created visual world expressed ideals rather than an actuality able to reproduce itself. The drama confronted the capitalist Utopia fervently promoted by the owners of the media with the socialist and humanist Utopia desired by the poets.

Part of the Ayres legend is as someone under-published, impassively ignoring the tasks of literary networking in order to spend the largest possible amount of time writing the largest possible number of poems. Art is wealth. This situation, the external aspect of which will be dramatically transformed by [releases imminent in 2003], is profoundly comparable to the other New Pictorial Economy poets at a certain stage of their careers. It was a formative environment which disappears – built over, but leaving its trace in the physiology of the inhabitants.

"The plump sun of a segmented tangerine burns on the saucer by the side of the pool: that taste is fire slowed and synthesized, stored in batteries of sugar, and the rays bend now into Lexington handmade paper 622 x 800mm, burns later in the suicide's blaze, where one dies of life, unable to continue: one, water dripping down back, buttocks and thighs, feels the bones enter the terrifying medium of cancer, now watches lover whipping a tethered dog with a leather lash, the greyhound eyes, the shivering physique, eyes of a Mary, a suffering Madonna, watches and does not intervene.
One pounds a piano, a hefty grand, a lacquered beats, beauty from blood, sonata from carcass, the smile of teeth, pounds pounds pounds, titillates, pounds, caresses, a rippling smile, moral grandeur with a yellow label, Deutsche Grammophon, a cubist crocodile fed on fingers of Schoenberg, and opens the jaws like a yawning patron on the void of boredom, one's private disease, an ivory throat yawning, and yawning – first fear, then fury, then melancholia, then despair."

'Deposition' goes on like this for 5 A4 pages (of Grille, #3, 1994), imitating the visual imagination of advertisements, taking on the MegaVisual tradition (in Peter Fuller's phrase) and excelling it. The poem stages a self-love-nest of commodity fetishism and climaxes with a quote from the Sex Pistols, a flashback to Situationism.
There seems to be a connection, in the atmosphere of German Idealism, between the ideal visual forms of Greek sculpture, and the behavioural and intellectual ideals discussed by the leisured heroes of Plato’s dialogues. In modern radical thought, there is a way leading from a dispassionate consideration of visual creations to the ideal forms towards which they strive; and on from this visualisation of the ideal to an emotional withdrawal from the forms of law and social life actually obtaining. Because of Marx’s classical background and enthusiasms, the whole line of Marxism has remained soaked in this line of German idealism, as we realise when we look at Soviet architecture and painting, or consider the Soviet bloc’s preoccupation with athletics in terms of its origins.

Looking, thus, at the Soviet realm’s visual order of ideal bodies and stone-enveloped ceremonial spaces is bound to remind us of the idealised world which saturates our streets. This is peculiarly an era when architecture is ignored or covered over by flat photographic images. When, too, the three-dimensional reality of oranges is felt to be less stimulating than the 2-dimensional, artificially staged and lit, image of oranges on the label. These images are also ideals – a visual economy as the satisfaction of desires. Commodity praise art is a shallow Utopia offering a model for each grouping of humans, which is more concentrated and significant than those formed by the real humans around them, and can act as a model for them. The wonderful technology of pictures draws us into a state of dependence, brings us the temptation of immersion, and teaches us to use the off switch of detachment. The street of pictures shows us the society we desire as a didactic refrain to the actual scenes and groupings. Its frames are a social grammar for forming social utterances or acts.
The poetry of the new pictorial economy has been far-reachingly oriented to take on this visual grammar – to seize it and sequence it. The poets of the group have taken on this interconnected, self-repeating, false yet lush visual world, in a struggle so intimate that it turns into a relationship. The lag between retinal perception and the formation of a model in the brain, with its star-burst of neural activity, has been prolonged, to become the site where poets excel, where poetry has its special place. As a side-effect, it is the location where the artist deviates from the merely objective and common, to create an impossibly rich and personal world, as mandated by Symbolisme. When the visual is so detached from its own archaic grounds in the physical, it gives us information about what is no longer archaic but actually timeless – our own biological desires; and, consequently, a state in which those desires would be satisfied – and we, replete.

The invasion of the offered public imagery by pressure-groups can also be interpreted as a wish to enter those images – by pushing to the centre of them, you tacitly accept that they are central. Contest over what too many people desire to have shows us, nonetheless, what desire is animated by. Love that hurting thing y'all. In the new visual economy, litigation takes place over images rather than over land ownership. The insubstantial is thus made fundamental. The projection of intact wish images is then a restitution for a new population, as transcendentally beautiful landscape images were restitution for a displaced rural population, which lived in cities and wished to live in the country. The litigation process damaged the images, in which we were then forced to live. The intellect perpetually seeks an intact visual plane, full of clear relationships as the basis for its struggles to model the truth, and perpetually shatters it, realising conflict in order to collapse into a domain of concepts.

A 1955 essay by David Sylvester remarks that "The most obvious difference between the art of today and art of the inter-war period is that rough surfaces have taken the place of smooth ones." He speaks of "the growth of moss or lichen which is suggested by the textures of certain English neo-Romantic painting, the wear and patination undergone by archaeological relics". This distinction is probably crucial for how we take to Ayres' work. It is extremely smooth, it has a mighty depth of field which requires perfect lighting conditions and a suitable self-arrangement of objects; it advances irresistibly, like a bus. As Sylvester indicates, painters of the existentialist era saw damage as the sign of authenticity. But why should the authentic not be intact? is that not why it is authentic? Surely rough textures can quite well be projective, subjective, fashionably predictable. "Two decades ago", the English critic wrote, "the current ideal was a streamlined finish, clean, precise, immaculate(.)" This is Ayres' current ideal, swimming in a world of techno music, steadicams, and mathematically generated films.

Naturally, the clash between the overall nature of the optically available world-surface and the linear, punctual nature of language causes problems at the level of metre. The posing and solution of these problems – of perpetually turning a plane into a string of points which recompose as a plane – is the project which Ayres has given his workshop over to. 

It is premature, no doubt, to write at length about Ayres' work when so much of it has not been published. He strikes me as someone almost totally uninfluenced by modern poetry. The influences we do detect go all the way back to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarme; influences dissolved, to be sure, in the workings of contemporary awareness, but which do concretize and converge as a "New Symbolisme". The key form-element is the Symbol, a visual image integrating various objects or parts. The origin of the image is within the artist's psyche, and it is not being corrected by reference to a physical original. Something essential is the way in which it is developed. We could speak of images that obey the laws of music. We should consider other Symbolists such as Paul Claudel, Leconte de Lisle, St Pol Roux, Verhaeren. His endlessly expanding pictures are carefully programmed; this is not quite surrealism.

Let's look for a moment at a passage from 'The Symbolic Church of the Red Truth':

John puts the grey stone into the cold box
In the cold box there is a grey stone
In the cold box there is a stone there is greyness
In the cold box is the grey stone John put there
John puts aluminium into the cold box
Jeff puts a yellow crayon into the cold box
In the cold box a yellow crayon rests beside a grey stone
In the cold box a yellow crayon rests beside aluminium
They are safe in the cold box – the grey stone, aluminium and the yellow crayon
They are there in the cold box
They are things in the cold box
Sometimes the cold box is the eye
Sometimes the cold box is 'memory'
Sometimes  the cold box is mind
Sometimes  the cold box is language
Sometimes the cold box is a flamingo
Sometimes  the cold box is an instant
Sometimes  the cold box is 'there'

The same phrase appears in 18 successive lines. This is a striking technical device. It may represent the poet's generation of fictive space: by a process of cellular doubling and variation, repeated indefinitely. We are bound to be reminded of Spiritualised – a band who use two-chord structures to produce an effect of shimmering and hovering, as we lose a sense of musical 'forward' and 'back': forward is the same as back. Something else we are bound to be reminded of is House music, with its dervish-like repetition of nuclear phrases, stored in a sequencer. The endless symmetry with its rippling, shifting breaches puts the centre of the work inside itself: it is convergent, which is the first requirement for any artificial world. This sounds like the self-teaching program of an automaton, acquiring cognitive structures through a minimal vocabulary and untiring procedures. By a slight shift, this could be the program which generates a digital landscape in a film – or in the code of a video game. The same doubling, splitting, and shifting gives, just further on, the lovely
the azure acid of melancholia the rook acid of foreboding.

'Marshal' is my favourite Ayres poem and is, we now learn, one of five poems, planned as a book, from the early 90s, the other four of which were 'Pool' 'Idyl' (published in Angel Exhaust 16), 'Sad Captain' and 'Nosferatu'. 'Marshal' was published in Angel Exhaust 10, and concerns a US marshal, a cattle town gunfighter from some classic and forgotten Western, come to face down and seize the poet for an unnamed crime. The scene is one from some lost Surrealist film, of lovers chased by malign authority. The Marshal is Tom Mix as the 'taxonomic loco' who reduces the wild lands of the West and the psyche to miserable, apathetic order. Of all Ayres' poems, this has the most brilliantly changing images, like shards of glass flying apart just slowly enough for us to see:

Then you come as a china dog tied with a morphine bow,
you come as lacunae, in senile pools,
you bring us what we forget in sacks of crushed wheels,
with clocks dipped in lard;
you come as a tiny barking dog,
a tiny ornamental dog from off a mantel,
an Anubis smaller than the eye
of a Lilliputian, tinkling needle.

In rooms of dishevelled memory,
a Jacob's angel of dirt and throwing winds on through,
a localised hurricane, diminutive then suddenly vast,
centreless, but perfumed,
trailing anxieties and desires:
I have passed close by you,
have reached and lost you

The openness to imagery is as if his studio were built with one glass wall. A poet who writes visually has to compete with other visual artists and to provide an adequate answer to the problems of visual thinking. The benefit is this purling fluency – you wade into the river and can then scoop what you want out of it. Correlatively, the poems offer themselves to our acoustic "scoop" with few or no retrieval problems. They are not cryptographic, paradoxical, violating the code they are written in. They reflect an imagined and experienced serene phase of existence, not frantic uncertainty in some hellish transit zone lost between two states of true being.

The more the image evolves and expresses process, the less it is surreal. Surrealism is of course present, mediated no doubt through Neruda, but we recall that is in fact a mutation of Symbolisme, and the objects which populated its oneiric scenes were largely left over from the warehouse of Symbolisme. Ayres is not interested in the momentary and contradictory montage, his key values are the abiding nature of the image conjured up from nowhere, its autonomy visavis the psyche which created it. These are not scribbled sketches but as it were built in brass and marble.
Symbolisme instructs a defection from the levelling world of the rational, shared, and legalistic. A refusal to adjust the lens to a shared norm – a portrait of the behaviour of the lens rather than of the visible, real, world. The dominance of personal style was defined by Arnold Hauser as bourgeois subjectivism, something which arrived in the middle of the nineteenth century. That was the start of the era we are still in. Maybe we start with a library of shared images and acquire personality by inducing differentiation in them.

As someone else influenced by the French, who adopted surrealism but did not want to surrender expressive control, we could name J.F. Hendry – a predecessor. His concept of the expanding image seems relevant:

Flower, yarrow, and the starry
Thistle throughout her temporal death!
Flower and flowering doubly, bear
This supersession of breath
Into the dreamless kingdom where
All substance, shape and motion
Find fulfilment of conception.
(from 'the orchestral mountain')

Let us break into blue music, like the sea,/ This hour-glass shivering at the wind's note. Hendry could devise brilliant lines but has none of Ayres' mastery of organisation in depth – his power to throw in violent shifts of direction which strengthen the cumulative image rather than interrupting it.

Whether rough or smooth, the boundary between the voluntary (gratifying) and involuntary (images that fly of their own accord) seems a vital boundary in this animated world. Jeremy Reed's recent work has accepted glamour photography as the authentic visual skin of the ideal in our time, and adopted the schemas of glossy magazines as the production values of the poem: a step too far for his peers. The step forward into kinky erotica was in its way a move into optimism, away from the corrosive revelations of observation of flesh and temperament taken from life. The contest with such a fulsomely multiplied world of scenes made possible a linear maximisation of impact, sheer and flawless as the chassis of a new car. In its extremism, and acceptance of media values, this work sheds a light on more complex work – for example the Ayres of 'Deposition', for example Barry MacSweeney's Jury Vet. The cynical isolation and valorisation of assets at least allows us to hazard a guess that the avant-garde's single-minded focus on one set of assets – those of a discredited historicism and formalism – represents a kind of tunnel vision rather than a choice which art will forever stay with. Art has always danced with the prized assets of the society around it, and the more this attraction is forbidden the more it will stand for temptation and transgression.

Very early appearances were in First Offence 5 ('Raw Materials') and Angel Exhaust Nine (1993; 'The Age of Drift'). An interesting moment in the struggle was the anthology Ten British Poets (edited by Paul Green, 1993), which showcased Ayres along with DS Marriott, Rod Mengham, Nigel Wheale, and others. Green’s knowledge was ahead of the game, and the milieu should have taken advantage of this. The anthology was both timely and of high quality. It repays looking at today. Maybe the problem was as simple as putting Peter Larkin’s share at the front – the reader was bleeding and unconscious before they ever got to the second contributor. This was a book which the whispering gallery of literary opinion never started whispering about. I do recall seeing two reviews, which were animated by jealousy and resentment, and didn’t bother with any description or evaluation. On such chances, entire periods of someone’s career may depend. Compounding the problems, no anthology with the same chronological lens has followed. This gallery serves as an exhibition of Ayres’ work, which can usefully be set beside Kelvin’s selected poems (to come from shearsman in 2004), and Robert Sheppard’s gallery (planned for 2003). It would be simpler if there were a magazine we could name the group after. In fact, all the New Pictorial Economy poets have some connection with shearsman.

Andrew Duncan
April 2003

Bibliography. Ten British Poets. Michael Ayres, Poems 1987-92; a.m. Robert Sheppard, The Lores, Daylight Robbery. Jeremy Reed, The Isthmus of Samuel Greenberg, Saints and Psychotics, Walk on Through, Bleecker Street. Kelvin Corcoran, The Red and Yellow Book, Lyric Lyric, When Suzy Was, Their Thinking Tracts or Nations.