Audrey Beecham and melodrama
Themes. Research into melodrama and women’s pictures has uncovered a set of conventions which on rotation seems to relate to a style of poetry being written in the 1940s, and further to expose a shift of the rules which moved this style into the past. Thinking of which film actor or actresses should deliver them is a way of thinking about or describing poems. This line also sheds light on mid-century British women’s poetry, an area which I have been trying to research.
It probably isn’t important to explain why mid-century women’s poetry was no good, since everyone accepts it. However, even in the Fifties you have significant work by Kathleen Raine, Kathleen Nott, and Beecham. It is of interest to ask what imperatives of the time they said No to. Audrey Beecham’s 1957 volume The Coast of Barbary fitted very badly into the scene of Christianity and affirmative culture around it:
The rootless, fastly bound to the rounded earth
Are dragged by tides and shoulder-glancing moon.
In childhood they renounce the tarnished spoon
And dance upon a howling rim of mirth.
By centrifugal force spinning from birth
Taunted and driven by a half-learnt tune
They spill their sands out for the singing dune
Or wander through uncharted wastes of dearth.
(from poem 1 of the 'Sonnets of the Twelfth House' section) Fitting in badly was basic to its being brilliant poetry. Centrifugal means nonconformist. People emotionally dragged by the moon are also called lunatics. Renouncing the tarnished (silver) spoon means rejecting your parents, part of a bad childhood. The music which should guide their steps is the tune they can’t quite get hold of. By being so overwhelmingly negative in emotional timbre, this reveals what continents of experience are opened up to sheer egoism. It leads out of affirmative culture – other women’s poetry of the mid-century is generally conceded to be unproductive and trapped inside values which made art difficult. I should point out that the 'twelfth house' is an astrological term glossed by the poet as 'The twelfth house signifies secret or private enemies, prisons, captivity, bondage, evil spirits, torments... this is a Cadent falling house'. Again, “It hath signification of private Enemies, Witches, Witchcraft… it is the House of Self undoing.” Beecham was part of the New Romantic movement, and her first book did not appear until 1957 partly, we suspect, because of that affinity. The dust jacket has Kathleen Raine saying “Her vision is of the dark, sinister side of feminine experience[.]” The title is glossed inside via a line from Vergil which describes a barren and hostile shore, and:
I am tired land and poor [...]
Piracy has played beneath my skylit eyeholes.
Men were enslaved to pass their lives in pain.
Monkey tribesmen clustered on my shoulders
Many times enriched my dust with richest rain.
(‘The Cruel Coast of Barbary’)
The literal meaning of the passage seems to be about monkeys pissing on the sand. This would be in effect a parody of procreation: not seed but urine, not humankind but monkey, not soil but dust. This is not what you expect in a poem of 1957. The ‘rain’ could possibly be blood, expended in some tribal feud. The speaker is the Barbary Shore, the land itself, around Tunis, Algiers and Tangiers. The curse underlies the whole book, the Desert Shore is barren because of past transgressions. The “eyeholes” are presumably ports, openings on the outside world. We wander the desert shore in an abiding state of longing for earth, woods, and sweet water. The ‘Sonnets on the Theme of Love’ seldom deviate from a steady shriek of horror and loathing. Sterility of the earth points to a drying up of fertility and nurture – as the feminine virtues, thus also to a radical exit from feminine nurturing into disruption and, apparently, misery.
Barbary is isolated, not just among mid-century women poets, but also among works of New Romantic poetry. Light can be shed on it via 1940s melodramas, a line of British films which was identified with women and loss of restraint, and by-passed by male critics more interested in theory, documentary, and social issues. Nonetheless there is a line of English film critics facing up to the irrational and enjoying it. Alan Lovell’s view on this is worth quoting: “I remember preparing for a course in British cinema by reading the plot summaries of all the films made in 1946-7. What appeared to be a melodramatic current stood out. Many films seemed to be marked by extravagant plotting and characterisation. The dramatic forces which shaped the dramas were emotional and large-scale, the fictional worlds marked by erotic cruelty, violence and perverse relationships.” So far we have a good equivalent for Thompson and Beecham. But Lovell goes on “Seeing the films produced a huge disappointment. I quickly became aware of how the elements which had interested me were downplayed and made safe by the writing, camerawork, acting and direction.” Of course, he is right, and we have to consider whether English creativity found it easier to succeed in less interesting styles. Now some plot summaries of certain films starring Margaret Lockwood. “Madness of the Heart (Charles Bennett, 1949) bombs for the opposite reason: cinematic overload. Margaret Lockwood hesitates between the convent life and marriage to a rich Frenchman, shrinks from his viciously snooty family, loses but then regains her sight, she feigns blindness to entrap her murderous rival[.]” “In Bedelia, (Lance Comfort 1946) Margaret Lockwood is a Riviera socialite who poisons her three husbands. In The Wicked Lady, as a cavalier socialite, she poisons an oppressively puritanical old servant (Felix Aylmer)[.] [Lockwood is also] in Jassy, where her devoted mute maidservant (Emma Canon), thinking to help her mistress, poisons brutal Basil Sydney, inadvertently framing her.” In The Man In Grey (1943), she plays Hesther: “Hesther is an adventuress. Bereft of social status, she attempts to usurp Clarissa’s position. [Rohan marries Clarissa but] Their contacts are characterised by passion and physical aggression, leading finally to his beating her to death when he learns she has murdered Clarissa. The film is unrelenting in its portrayal of the component of cruelty[.]” Fairly obviously, suffering is central to these plots, and inflicting suffering on others, in the pursuit of love or wealth, is the other main preoccupation. No less obviously, this matches exactly with the interests of Audrey Beecham in Coast of Barbary. (paraphrases quoted from film historians Marcia Landy and Raymond Durgnat) Quite apart from being avant garde, she is thoroughly connected to Gainsborough melodramas and to cinematic appetites which had become completely hors de combat by 1952. While this was a genre which was only around for half a dozen years, Lockwood certainly wasn’t the only star making this kind of film, and a much longer list could be developed. In Wicked Lady, you will doubtless remember, she also becomes a highwaywoman, robbing coaches in a mask just for the thrill of it. This is a bit like Jane Russell in Son of Paleface and Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, although the differences are equally important. When Beecham writes
But after death their wasted days shoot stars
Across the jagged course, the Dragon’s Tail,
And light the chain of chasms where their fall
Sundered a plain. The livid cage-like bars
Wherein they blundered will dissolve like hail
And carrion fate resolve in clarion call.
('Sonnets of the Twelfth House')
it is apparent that key features are unhappiness, those Twelfth House feelings, and passion: the tone is completely undetached, it is frustration which blows up eventually to geological scale – tearing the landscape apart. The poem is about passion surviving death. This matches the luxuriously staged suffering of 1940s melodramas. Another poem about passion after death is ‘Fossil Bird’:
A changing world fell on me as I slept:
Yet, crushed in two dimensions, have I kept
The pattern of my predatory lust
Impregnable against the earth’s slow rust.
She says the rock “has tried a million years/ To breach the prism of my crystal fears.” I looked at a whole lot of poetry written in the 1970s, and found an isolated group of poets who wrote in a melodramatic style, like Beecham’s, and who had all been active in the 1940s. I think we have a generational shift whereby poetry in this manner ceased to be written, and this is co-ordinated with shifts in acting style and in the wider cinematographic array of British films, advancing during the 1950s but stemming from a documentary tradition which goes back to the 1930s or arguably even earlier. The poets who continued to write in this florid manner were Jack Beeching, Kathleen Raine, and George Barker. Take this passage from Beeching:
Mordant on retina as acid smoke,
Hot dreams of eremite, or prisoner,
Degrade the vigil with a Judas kiss.
Only a lover’s bodily embrace
Tattoos a never-fading cicatrice.
(from “Words and Deeds”)
This was published in 1970, but is strikingly like Beecham’s 1957 poems. It sticks out in 1970, because it is surrounded by poets whose style it has nothing in common with. I would like to quote a poet who faded after the 1940s, Dunstan Thompson wrote a poem which equates sex with being devoured:
The lion is like him and the elusive leopard:
Nine lived, he ranges – killer cat – my heart.
Green is the hanging moss, and green the jungle
Creeper: green where the gold plantations part
Their bamboo branches for a murderer's head.
In green courts he eats meat from the green dead.
See, like a rajah, how he ravens fine food.
The long claws fork their lightning; diamond, his teeth,
Glitter of jewel jaws, dazzle–glaze their mirrors
Black blood and purple, stained points of glass. Beneath
Lascivious fur, his regal muscles flex,
Digesting fire, the marrow root of sex.
(from 'Lament for the Sleepwalker', in the volume of that name, 1947)
This certainly involves “erotic cruelty, violence and perverse relationships”. It is melodramatic, not just because it favours glamorous suffering, but because of its divine egoism. The world outside the poet and the loved object simply does not exist. This relates to star cinema, something which is unusual in Britain, but which was certainly there in the 1940s, for Gainsborough Films. The arrival of a documentary attitude, stressing the objective aspects of life, made this sort of poem impossible. A radical and pioneering recall to awareness was Julian Petley’s 1986 essay “The Lost Continent”, a voicing of a suppressed line of English cinema which uses that key phrase, “always received critically with fear and disapproval”. Petley does what is hard to do in the daylight, he advances into a position where melodrama is normal and everything else is frustration. We have to go through this position to get to a proper evaluation of writers like Beecham and Thompson.
Beecham published a second book in 1980, A Different Weather. It does not add new themes to the first one and it feels like a room of 1957 which has clung on to its space. It is good in the same way:
Praise be to that most powerful bird of prey
Who rose from the smoke of equinoctial foam
And carrying a rose at whose single heart love lay
Laid it upon a heap of stranded stone
Boulders herded in swirls and dumped by the sea.
(‘A Different Weather’)
The poem “Four Portraits in the Manner of Francis Bacon” is interesting because it puts Beecham in a context, even if it is a sub-world of Fifties London. This portrait is “The Bone Man”;
A bird’s frame is white and yet grey and of bone
A bird’s beak is stiffer and dryer than stone
Yet this man is greyer and far more skeletal than
Any cluster of parched bones to wet which
A screaming stream ran.
Again, this reminds me of Dunstan Thompson. The two stanzas I have quoted use the same basic imagery: stones, water, birds, prey. Beecham keeps saying the same thing, but it becomes less elusive and more convincing with repetition.
Jim Keery has responded with one of Beecham's never-reprinted poems, from 1940:
Norway Poetry London No. 3, November 1940, pp.47-48.
Once the sound of its drum has burst the eardrums
And the loud shriek anguished at last to silence
Love of itself is vanquished;
But the relinquished
Hold of the lover sleeping binds the mind
To levels lower and to those more stale
Than pools of stagnant rain beneath the earth.
Spain, our ace, was tricked by molten gold:
And our sly trail unrolled on Europe’s map
Slugged action, flounders now through snow
To race the waiting bomb-burst of our hearts.
The rhythmical stop-go
Of fate’s two eyes suffice to hold us back
From any courage which would jeopardise
The bonds which hold our honour to a rack.
O England, may your blight of boredom melt
Like sweat of love, and may your wind ride up
Above the doldrums of a boring war
To blast the flags that flap in national shame
Out of the sky
And cheer the hands that fail
And fall from masts.
People are agreeing with me that Beecham was good. (Does “Love of itself is vanquished” mean “the excessive narcissism of my ex-lover has collapsed” or “excessive pain has made me unable to love again” or “love destroys love” or “my illusions about you are over”?) Does the bit where the wind “cheer[s] the hands that ... fall from masts” have the wind make the sailors cheerful as they fall from the rigging, or utter cheers of appreciation as each one falls?) The thesis I set out with was roughly that “mid-century women poets had an ideal of being ladylike which they put through in poetry and which proved to be a tangle of inhibitions which made their poetry faint and unmemorable”. I got this idea while listlessly watching old English films and thinking how unimpressive the female stars were – refined but faint. Beecham could prove this idea because her poetry is impressive but at the same time malevolent, barbaric, unrestrained, perverse, etc. I don't think this proves any idea of why the others were no good. If we take 4 women poets of the 1950s (Roberts, Beecham, Eithne Wilkins, Kathleen Nott), none of them is in the standard anthologies (Allott and Lucie-Smith). Only Beecham is writing in a melodramatic way. The striking thing is how forgotten they were, by the living literary opinion I know about. Wilkins never got a volume out. More effort is needed to dig up the poets who were forgotten by the “family values” culture of the 1950s and the mod superficiality of the 1960s. Nott and Beecham in particular should be recovered (see postings on this blog), but there may be others I don't know about.
The problem with the big grand music of the British Poetry Revival, whereby everything happened after 1960, is that it buries the poets of the 1950s. I have been guilty of this. The dominant culture of the time was repressive, conformist, privately pessimistic. Poets who were crushed beneath it should not be blamed for inventing it. The Fifties were full of frustrated and rebellious people, and it was those people who made the Sixties happen.
Beecham's most famous poem is “A Spell”, which is a curse of the lover or ex-lover (published around 1947? and in the Rexroth anthology 1948, then called “Exile”). Jim Keery pointed out that this is like the curse with which Kathleen Raine cursed Gavin Maxwell in 1957 (and which he wrote a book about, Raven seek thy brother). I am not sure this belongs to the history of poetry, but it is a bit linked to the spell-forms which dominate Raine's terrific book “The Year One”, 1951. These again were copied, formally, from the Hebridean spells and charms printed in the “Carmina Gadelica”.