On the Margins of Great Empires
Published in June 2018 by Shearsman Books
Seeing this sequence as a large, articulated work, put into its sections and with the culminations of a sustained amplitude, I esteem its achievement very highly. It is strong and active with the questions of power which underlie the strength; the instrumentalism of language is put under sustained pressure, both of invention and expression, and the outcome is negotiated closely across a wide range of historical predicament and moral passion. The method is conspicuously unoriginal, but its uses are strikingly productive and grand. – J.H. Prynne (1982)
Peter Porter, in a letter to Simon Jenner, 2003:
We talked on the phone about Eratica a little. .... But this letter is really about one thing, namely Andrew Duncan's Skeleton looking at Chinese Pictures, which I have been reading at intervals now for some time. I think that certainly it is a remarkable book and I also recognize that I must inhabit a shamefully restricted part of the literary world for me not to have encountered his poetry before this[.] …
What I admire most in Duncan's work is his willingness (indeed enthusiasm) for not confining things to any sort of ghetto. He likes as much history and mediaevalism as Pound but he also aspires to a contemporary concern for life in our modern mercantile mess. His chief fault, it seems to me, is a sort of verbal vertigo: too many words spin round and round[.] It's excellent the way he refuses to be cowed by any sort of notion of appropriateness or decorum, so that runic and traditional poetics mix with the city of London and sexual turpitude in modern life.[…] There are many properly 'big' poems – something which doesn't get attempted sufficiently these days, presumably because it gives hostages to fortune.
if I say that I am reminded at times of Peter Redgrove, Lawrence Durrell, and even David Jones, with a touch of a more unbuttoned Geoffrey Hill, I am not implying any kind of influence ... It is certainly a rich book and now that I have marinaded my mind in it, I expect to return to individual poems with greater pleasure and understanding.
(AD) So this replaces the 2001 volume which is out of print. A lot of the poems post-date 2001.
The title comes from a book by Mircea Eliade, adapted. It is, directly, a line from “When history becomes myth”, a poem which uses themes from L’éternel retour. The reference is to folk cultures untouched by metropolitan literary systems.
Eliade says so many peoples were doomed to suffering and disappearance “because they live in the neighbourhood of empires perpetually striving to expand”. This phrase became “on the margins of great empires”.
There is a sentence in that 1982 Prynne letter “the displaced feeling corresponds to the Randgebiete and Randsprachen of an internalised but hostile imperium”. The German words are in the title of a book by Wolfram Eberhard, which approached the history of Chinese society through an idea of highly different regional components which contributed different things to the rising farming/ urban/ State complex. I was studying Chinese briefly, for about six months, in 1976, I spent time in the Oriental Studies library at Cambridge, and they had Eberhard’s book. The words mean marginal regions and marginal languages, and the phrase on the margins of great empires refers also to that Letter. I changed subject to study Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, and these really were Randsprachen.
The margins I am thinking of are not doomed to disappearance, I don’t think, just quiet under the huge din of megalopolitan cultures.
In the margins of the great empires
provincial cultures turning slowly on themselves,
a self-locking aggregate crossing the rim
of recurring. The abiding, the filling. Tales
in the prison where Campanella was held.
at the place where nothing is altered, the bottom
of a great lake.
Let us enter the greater forgetting
far from the decay of forms
mere laggards in the march of high ideas.
Disposed in the likeness of goodness
descend in the likeness of companionship.
Sunday, 3 June 2018
The prism of my crystal fears: a new angle on New Romantic poetry
It is almost 20 years since James Keery re-invented the study of the New Romantics with his work “Schönheit Apocalyptica”, and the era of sensational new interpretations has given way to a more solid phase of cataloguing and labelling the finds. But I am offering a new line on the poetry – not to cast into doubt the findings of modern research, by Keery, John Goodby, Nigel Wheale, and others, but to shed light from a different direction. This is by approaching the poetry from cinema.
There is a whole line of cinema criticism which presents British cinema as succeeding only where it is realistic and frankly faces social issues. Bypassing these is taken as a sort of evasion of responsibilities, a refusal to honour your debts. Lindsay Anderson seemed to believe, at his desk, that understanding the arrangements for finance and censorship in the British industry, grasping British social problems, and making great films, were roughly the same thing. One cannot get far with this subject without mentioning Julian Petley’s 1986 essay “The Lost Continent”, where he suggests that the climactic form of cinema is not realism and even that there is a current of English cinema which has avoided realism and reached quite other goals. This whole debate is highly relevant to Apocalyptic poetry and its frank rejection of realism and social relevance – and suggests a link between that stance and certain highly emotive and assiduously forgotten films of the 1940s.
This line of cinema is described in The British Cinema Book, a collection edited by Robert Murphy. Two passages are of special interest. One quotes the producer Herbert Wilcox: he made “happy, unclouded pictures. We do not want sadism, abnormality, and psycho-analysis” and clarifies “What he was referring to was a loose group of psychological melodramas (usually crime thrillers) which could be classified as British film noir. The central type in these films was the misfit, often a fugitive […] always tormented, desperate, unable to find a safe haven or a secure identity. In some films these protagonists begin to doubt their own sanity, and the result is breakdown or uncontrolled violence […] the actor who most often embodied this type was Eric Portman.” Portman was the Nazi submarine commander in 49th Parallel. He “starred in Great Day (1945), Wanted for Murder (1946), Daybreak (1946), Dear Murderer (1947), The Mark of Cain (1948), Corridor of Mirrors (1948) and The Spider and the Fly (1949). In all these films he played tormented, sexually insecure failures.” ”Leonard Wallace noted that Portman had a large female following: ‘It’s the strength being harried and tested by circumstances that really gets the girls suffering for him … No-one is better than Portman at expressing with a haunted, tortured, expression of the eyes and face otherwise taut and immobile, the inner bitterness of a strong man’s soul.’ Picturegoer readers, presumably from both sexes, voted him into fourth place in the 1947 poll for his performance as the tormented serial killer in Wanted for Murder.” Another chapter in the same book (by about 40 film scholars) also recalls Portman: “his intellectual forehead, hooded eyes – now cloudy, now gleaming – and tight yet sensual mouth suggest ‘ordinary people’ thoughtfulness.” “In Wanted for Murder he plays the Hyde Park strangler, and attributes his murderous drives to his hangman forefather (hereditary tendencies? Or morbid imagination? or both?).” In two films where he is the rival of Maxwell Reed, he is “suave, supercilious, secretive, rational, deadly jealous.”
Fans of Apocalyptic poetry will recognise many of these traits in the poetry we like. It would be crude to state that the fugitive’s exclusion from society echoed the Apocalyptic rejection of the State, the war effort, science, reason, and so on – but not untrue. While the analogies with dreamlike thrillers split the poetry, since only some of the poetry fits inside them (notably Thompson, Barker, and Beecham), the popularity of the films suggests first, that we would have Apocalyptic poetry even if there had been no manifestos, secondly, that we do have to allow for an element of the public mood during a finite period of the 1940s which fuelled art, in various genres, with specific predilections. How could Portman be fourth most popular star of 1947 for playing a serial killer?
Portman was not the cineaste who gave rise to this whole line of films, he was just an actor who had certain qualities, of ambiguity, high intellect, good looks, and anguish, among other things, which were necessary to carry these strange and perverse plots. Evidently, over a period of roughly three years, he had a “drawing power” which meant that this was a commercial formula and that people bought tickets because they knew that a film with Eric Portman would carry certain moods and that was what they wanted. In Daybreak he plays a hangman whose wife is involved with the thuggish and yet sexually charged Maxwell Reed. He fakes his own death to frame Reed, who is convicted– and Portman visits him in his cell, before carrying out the final act of revenge. In a compromised resolution, Portman confesses rather than completing the story. Then he hangs himself.
Corridor of Mirrors is related to French films by Jean Delannoy and Jean Cocteau, as the write-up in ImDB says. “In Corridor of Mirrors he plays a rich mystical aesthete who thinks he murdered Welsh beauty Edana Romney in a previous life. In effect, he frames, and then hangs, himself.” The text on the cover of the DVD tells us “Mangin [Portman] becomes obsessed with his new muse believing she is the reincarnation of his lover from a former life, whose portrait hangs in his home. He adorns Myfanwy with antique jewels and precious fabrics, making her the double of his first mistress. As their relationship escalates, Mangin’s controlling nature becomes too much and during a sumptuous Venetian-style ball he has planned for her, Myfanwy rebels against his brainwashing and tries to run away…” Mangin was recuperating from wounds after the First World War when he received the insight that he had lived before and loved a woman who looked exactly like the Edana Romney character. The unstated link between prophecy and PTSD or shell-shock is significant. (Cocteau made a film of Beauty and the Beast and Corridor is a version of Bluebeard.) He frames himself for a murder he did not commit - repeating the climax of Daybreak by hanging himself. This was a commercial formula - crazy, why was this commercial?
The writer and producer was Rudolph Cartier, better known as the producer of all the first three series of “Quatermass” on television. To be exact, he co-wrote the script with Edana Romney, the female star. The words “antique jewels and precious fabrics” and “sumptuous ball” are code-words, people in 1948 simply wanted to see these things no matter what the plot of the film was. (Cartier was Austrian and directed, as Rudolf Katscher, a 1933 Peter Lorre film, for UFA.)
The agreed break-through moment is around 1933. George Barker, Dylan Thomas, and David Gascoyne are starting to write poems in a fundamentally new style. This was the substance on which the theory of Apocalypse, in 1937 and later, was founded. It had tendencies in common with Surrealism – which was of all things a productive idea, one which spread in a thousand directions. My argument is that the Surrealist line in cinema produced a kind of film in the mid-40s which coincided with Apocalyptic poetry because this too had Surrealist DNA. But also – the poets watched films.
As is well-known, the 1943 American film Night of Fear starts with a sequence in which the protagonist enters a room full of mirrors, apparently in a trance, to kill someone in an act for which he has no motive. The next day, he has a memory of it but thinks it was a dream. I wanted to address the link between a corridor of mirrors and a room full of them. Both are an excuse for exotic and ambiguous sequences of visual information. Both tend to abolish the outside world of objectivity – the actor is as it were trapped in his own head, advancing only into mirrored space. But also, to expose the presence of Surrealism in American popular cinema – in a sub-genre of film noir where the hero is carrying out dream-like actions, under the influence of concussion, hypnosis, or traumatic dissociation. This is not presented as the free dissociation of the Parisian surrealists. Nor, due to censorship rules, is it presented as due to drugs – we have to imagine the trance-like and suggestible states of various noir heroes as taking place without drugs. Key elements of certain New Romantic poems were thus present in cinematic culture. In the novel, significant examples of dissociation and involuntary but compulsive action are in Hangover Square (by Patrick Hamilton), and Traitor's Purse, by Margery Allingham. In Allingham’s novel, the hero has concussion and amnesia, only able to follow a plan he does not understand and to escape from the police, who want him for murder. These plots noticeably resemble the stories of many Apocalyptic poems, where the protagonist is moving through the plot of a dream or an allegory, hunted by terrible dangers, unable to plan rationally but able to utter unnatural knowledge of Fate. The original Apocalypse, of John, can be fitted back into this realm, as an allegory involving prophecy, involuntary and inexplicable knowledge, visions which are partly paranoia.
If we take a passage from a Dunstan Thompson poem –
Where skullbone banners, no pity flags, are flying
Before the cruel and radium caves, he lairs
His treasure. There, while jackals scream, Lord Vulture,
Wing caged in crystal, sings his subtle airs
Of praise, recalls how orchid adder hissed
Above the crypt when lion and lover kissed.
Nightmare is livelong by a never-ending:
In the most mandrake forest, I walk, love lost,
Through panther grass towards no good morrow. Agave
Leaves like hundred years impale my ghost
On yesterdays of youth. At crossroad stands
The strangler with his four and frantic hands.
(“Lament for the Sleepwalker”)
–this resembles Night of Fear because of the four hands (two people trying to strangle each other in the mirrored room) and the sleepwalking quality. But the striking resemblance is in emotional ambience. Whatever the brilliance of Thompson’s language, the tone is one of hysteria, doom, persecutory anxiety. The raw material of Night of Fear is also what Thompson is drawing on. Film and poem have the same high pitch. (The image of a bird’s wing trapped in crystal also appears in a poem by Audrey Beecham, “Whose blunted beak has tried a million years/ To breach the prism of my crystal fears.”) Thompson and Cornell Woolrich, the source writer of Night of fear, were in the same place, hearing the same music.
Corridor has a protagonist, Paul Mangin, who is animated by involuntary and compulsive actions due to re-incarnation. This is a variant on hypnosis, dissociation, drugs, etc. It is, however, the exit of a man from daily life into a myth – which is what the Apocalyptic poets were trying to bring about. (The model was certainly Delannoy’s L’eternel retour rather than recent poetry.) The reincarnation theme, illustrating a fantasy about love outlasting death, was present in popular films quite outside film noir – for example The Man in Grey and Morning in Mayfair. In Corridor the scenery is a house which is quite literally created by the protagonist as the realisation of a dream, a besetting vision. Objective scenery is thus replaced by dream symbols – mimicking what the director of an art film might do, and this is a step towards an English art cinema, but also mimicking a large number of New Romantic poems where the action is taking place in a dream landscape. A fully realised art film would be an apocalypse – an unveiling of what is hidden, where the unknown exhibits itself in highly sensuous and yet irrational form. We are entitled to imagine New Romantic poems being recited by Portman. In the mansion, there is a corridor of mirrors – behind each one is a 16th C style dress – for Romney to wear, as she opens each door. (The echo is of Bluebeard, but what we experience is unchained narcissism.)
Watching Corridor has a strong retrospective colouring for someone who watches Hammer films: because their standard scene of the travellers entering a magnificent castle from which the host is mysteriously absent is so clearly taken from Corridor. The standard costume of the vulnerable female stars is also derived from the brocaded dresses worn by Edana Romney. Corridor is a women's picture: there are almost no scenes without Romney, and her affair with Paul Mangin is viewed entirely from her point of view. She dresses up, tries on jewels, and looks at herself in the mirror, and Mangin is present mainly as a spectator for her display.
Nigel Wheale has already written expertly on the links between Michael Powell’s “A matter of life and death” and a sequence in Lynette Roberts’ Gods with Stainless Ears. There is another style of cinema, the melodrama associated with Gainsborough Films, which has links with Forties poetry and which needs to be brought in when we are considering the tenor of the time. What I am saying is that we need to look beyond the high-budget romances of Gainsborough and consider also the paranoiac and dreamlike noir which seized on Eric Portman as its face.
The movement “Apocalypse” had legitimate sources in Lawrence, Berdyaev, in the critique of merely sociological literature, in Personalist theology, and so forth. But some of the poems also bear noticeable resemblances to scenes in the films of the time. The view of film historians is that, although the Forties saw a great number of realistic films, in which the techniques of the documentary moment were adapted into fiction which reflected the objective nature of the war and of military technology, the cinema audience also wanted escapist films – to get away from rationing, bad war news, the absence of lovers on war matters. A larger share of the audience at home was female – without simplifying too much, this inclined film-makers to have female protagonists, to make melodramas, and to use luxurious settings (especially clothes). Since the 1960s, maybe specifically since an article by Andrew Sarris in 1963, historians have tended to agree that the practice of film history in mid-century devalued women’s films and devised several negative aesthetic categories into which women’s pictures could be safely put.
The memory of L’éternel retour is clouded by its role as something which was aimed to please the Nazis. The Nazi grip on the French film industry, during the Occupation, was especially hard. The title is a translation of die ewige Wiederkehr, a phrase used by Nietzsche. The neo-classical composition of the visually gorgeous film was arguably a homage to the neo-classicism of Nazi visual art, such as Arno Breker sculptures. Even Jean Marais’ fair hair was interpreted as a homage to Aryan values. Pushing that idea away, we can agree that the utter material deprivation of France during the Occupation, with the occupation administration confiscating everything to support the German economy, favoured a stylised genre of spectacular fantasy film, of which Delannoy was the chief director. (The exactions were part of the peace conditions accepted by the Vichy government and affected the unoccupied zone as much as the occupied one.) Les visiteurs du soir is the other obvious example of spectacle-film for the hungry. The point is that war conditions favoured luxurious dreamlike fantasy, even if democratic countries also had a dominant line of realist dramas involving ordinary people. When we see English poetry involving mythic fantasy and super-sensuous images, it does resemble certain Forties films. A more fundamental aspect of Apocalyptic poetry is the focus on the self and its subjective states to the exclusion of objective factors and even realism. This is easily detached from the “ideological ground” of living in a permanent state outside history and inside apocalypse, as argued by Berdyaev. Indeed, we can quite easily attach it to melodramatic films – both the lush Gainsborough romances of the period and the dark thrillers in which Eric Portman starred. We can even see it as a protest against the close-down of the consumer economy for the benefit of war production (and expenditure on aggression).
There is an American film called The Brighton Strangler (Max Nosseck, 1945) in which an actor who has had a long run of playing a murderer in a play called The Brighton Strangler suffers concussion after a bomb strike and then starts to re-enact the play by committing real murders. This is an unwatchably bad film due to the stupid psychological basis. However, it shows the lead figure acting out a compulsion in complete disregard of reason and calculation, and this suspension unignorably resembles the basic rule for Apocalyptic poetry. Humans generally consider their actions and conduct an inner argument to maximise success in a set of long-lasting social games. They exploit predictability by means of complex inhibitions, and compulsion makes them unattractive as allies as well as unable to react to circumstances. But evidently the point of departure for the Apocalyptic style in poetry is to suspend all that and give way to a compulsion – in which you can hear prophetic truths. Even if you dislike the poetic style, you have to explain why its key feature is also present in the dregs of popular culture, a cliché which a tired scriptwriter can resort to without thought.
A corollary is that we may need to look past the intellectual sources of Apocalyptic poetry (in Lawrence and Berdyaev, as worked out first by John Goodland) and look for broader reasons why these “trance narratives” were accepted and also why people desired to experience them in art. There is almost too much evidence. It may be that the worst of the films, and also the worst of the poetry, both surviving in large quantities, give us a less defended, more naïve, version of the theme.Take the motif of a character who drinks to excess and where the resolution of a mystery is that he has committed a murder in a dream state, had a blackout afterwards, and cannot remember that he has committed the murder. In “The Black Angel” (film, American), he actually investigates the murder and helps to solve it. As you pile up stories that use this theme, it becomes obvious that Apocalyptic poetry is written in a blackout, the poems tend to be inconsistent and inconclusive because a “second draft” is impossible – the creative process is disconnected from the conscious self. In poetry, the trance state is felt as desirable – it is interesting that in film it is mostly frightening and involves the protagonist in horrible acts. The playing out of buried compulsions reminds us of drug culture, a few decades later – but this is just an interesting coincidence. The use of opium and cocaine was hardly unknown to the Surrealists or to Hollywood scriptwriters, but it doesn't explain why audiences found the “compulsive state” so attractive.We can list various narrative settings:
The hero is a prophet and focuses the true forces of history as knowledge, which he utters in this state (Gascoyne)
The hero commits murder in a trance-like state, possessed by hypnosis or morbid heredity
The hero is sleepwalking
The hero is enacting a myth under the influence of ancestral dramas
The hero is acting irrationally under the control of l’amour fou
Obviously these are quite different, but they all have in common the disappearance of reason in the surrender to irrational compulsions. I would like to add the spirit possession described in Kathleen Raine’s poem ‘Invocation’. James Kirkup’s poem ‘The Glass Fable’ (published in Poetry Quarterly in 1943) describes a dream which affects two people, who travel to the same place to meet.
He rises, slowly, in a long,
an iridescent manuscript
is buried in the tomb of his loins.
While we would not normally see Kirkup as an Apocalyptic poet, he is very close to some of the poets we have mentioned. His poem takes the male lovers to a palace made of jewels – this is a literal echo of the jewelled landscapes of the Biblical Book of Revelations, but also resembles the “precious jewels” of Corridor of Mirrors. This would redefine Revelations as a spectacle film in the line of L’éternel retour!
The crystal floors are deep, and spring
from wells of molten glass, the rooted walls
that fluctuate are fluted coral cliffs
rising from the antipodes, and lift
diminishing perspectives, turrets, towers
The effect is as if the molten glass were semen, and the frozen glass were a social surface, a place where two male lovers are happy – which is threatened with collapse (“pour in avalanches down/ deep deliquescent graves”). The crystals are a climax before it happens (so to speak). Fable also includes a corridor of mirrors. The link of prophetic trance to noir blackouts is a stretch, but Gascoyne’s diaries of the time show the kind of character who inhabits sleepwalking film noir: anxious, drugged-up, hyper, obsessed, vagrant. So the besetting impulses of Night of Fear connect to the dreamlike beasts of Apocalypse (where heaven has a "sea of glass"). Is Kirkup's the same glass as in the corridor of mirrors?
There is a group of poets who fall outside the well-defined Apocalyptic realm but who represent an obvious shared ideal, one which is typical of the Forties. We might benefit from defining another centre of attraction for poets, and temporarily masking out the Treece/Hendry statement of ideals. There is a whole anti-realist hemisphere of the world. If you make Raine, Barker, Beecham, and Kirkup the centre, you develop a different map.
John Goodby’s work on Dylan Thomas’ Notebooks, especially, has emphasised that the key developments were around 1933. So how do we align this with a line of cinema that patently wasn’t there until 1945? I think we have to re-think the development of Apocalyptic poetry. It was a broad movement and the subdivisions could be of great importance. As for the end of the movement (and James Keery has been collecting Fifties Apocalyptic poetry on a large scale), the end of the tormented/fugitive hero film cycle (and the effective end of Portman’s career as a star) suggests that this was a brief flare-up, and that public taste moved on. (Some of the thematic material migrated into the genre of horror film.) The Fifties saw a new sensibility, family-oriented, Christian, aimed at reconstruction and the revival of trade, etc. A group of works, in painting, theatre, cinema, and ballet as well as in poetry, went out of fashion and was buried and forgotten – ready to be salvaged to memory in the 1987 New Romantic exhibition, or later. (Poetry written in 1933 or 1935 could not be a protest against the deprivations of the war economy – this is a puzzle.)
I think we have to consider a new definition of Forties poetry in which "total subjectivity and access to a egocentric Sublime" are the key terms, and which is still sharply visible when we contrast 70s publications by those poets – so Raine, Gascoyne, Barker, Jack Beeching – with other publications, in the 70s. This sidelines the straight Apocalyptic line, with its derivation from Berdyaev. The consequence of passivity and steadfast belief in feelings is that this manner erases the masculine – it converges rather clearly on the (traditionally) female genre of melodrama. When you release what was repressed and unconscious, in a society which imprisons gay men, some of what is released will be homosexual narratives, allowed to flourish and complete. But this new style is not straightforwardly gay poetry (or gay cinema), rather it advances into a territory where the oppositions are erased.
[Many Forties pictures arrived on a memory stick which I acquired I know not how, perhaps while sleepwalking. One of these is Frenzy (Vernon Sewell, 1945?, aka Latin Quarter), which has much the same plot as Corridor of Mirrors. A sculptor kills a model to put her inside a sculpture which records the image of his dead former beloved, etc. Although I am a Derrick de Marney fan, in a modest way, I admit I couldn’t watch this – it is too similar to Roger Corman’s Bucketful of Blood, and I couldn’t take it for that reason. Also the plotline is much like an ancient Janet Gaynor film (possibly Street Angel, 1927). All too obviously, the young woman inside the stone is like the wing inside the crystal. I intend to watch this batch as time allows, and it does include three Eric Portman films.]
[I was distracted by a minor character in Corridor. As the couturier, he struck me by his slyness, perversity, and the ambiguity and tension which he gave to his lines. After searching a bit, I realised that I had recently seen him in two other films (the 1952 Pickwick Papers and The Return of Paul Temple) and also that there was an infantile memory, as he had played the sheriff of Nottingham in the long-running Fifties TV serial of Robin Hood. This was an early example for me of being fascinated by the villain and bored by the psychological blankness of the hero (Nigel Greene?). Wheatley was an astute actor who could suggest complex and not necessarily pleasant twists of his personality in brief screen appearances. Alan Wheatley boxed set, anyone?]
REACTIONS POST RELEASE