Friday, 27 July 2018

John Hartley Williams

Eight and a Half, or, A Crush of Golden Femininity: John Hartley Williams 

Williams lived from 1942 to 2014. He lived in Berlin from 1976 but a valuable memoir, in his 1995 book, Ignoble Sentiments, describes his earlier experiences as a teacher in Belgrade. One of his most celebrated poems is ‘Lament for the Subota-Palic Tramway’ (in Hidden Identities), which describes the negative effects of modernisation in some unspecified Balkan town and deep nostalgia for the pre-modernised version.
A book-list may help. This is roughly it. Hidden Identities, 1982. Bright River Yonder 1987. Cornerless People 1990. Double 1994. Ignoble Sentiments 1995 (this was the one with a prose autobiography and some early poems). Canada 1997. Spending time with Walter, 2002. Blues, 2004. The Ship (picks up 11 poems from his first book but adds many more from the period 1960 to 1980), 2007. Café des Artistes, 2009. There followed pamphlets of which I can list 4: The Golden Age of Smoking (2014), None of that W or I'll Z you, A Poetry Inferno, Hex Wheels. This may not be the full count. Assault on the Clouds is 56 pages long, so a book.

I am going to keep it short because there is a problem with scaling up – if someone does ten terrific books, do I need to write 10,000 words about each of them? All the same I was sorry to reach the end of my project on modern British poetry (not so modern, by the time I’d finished) and see that there was no career survey of Williams in it. There is a literary problem here. Towards the end of his life, Williams just could not agree with High Street publishers any more, and dropped out – releasing his work through penniless publishers (like Shoestring Press, here in Nottingham). Small publishers – ones who listen to the poet, likely. As follows, there is no Selected and no Collected. It looks to me as if he was doing a vanishing act. I was asked to do a review of his 2004 book because no reviews were happening – a magazine editor thought this was wrong and used me as a resource, but there evidently was a problem. To sum up, Williams was a highly gifted poet, and with broad popular appeal, who was on the map but has been moved off the map. It is necessary to write about him.
Williams’ career has an odd distribution: his first book, Hidden Identities, came out when he was forty (in 1982), but was followed with amazing vigour; I believe Assault on the Clouds, 2012, is his eleventh book. What The Ship makes visible is the emergence of postmodernism out of an earlier form: he was directly linked to the most fashionable avant garde genre of the 1950s, the theatre of the absurd, which was a local form of surrealism, creating situations out of pure fantasy guided by the contours of language and by the opulent and rotting conventions of legacy art. This took up a quicker, almost 'transistorised' form in the 1960s, as Pop poetry. The first poem in his first book mentions Tarzan – so typical of the Pop poem, with a hero narrative straight out of popular fiction, cheap and quick. It is set in a cinema. For me, this poetry has a Sixties feel and retained it up to the end. If we ask what happened to that Pop poetry, the answer is that although most of it died inhaling its own banality the visible development of it was in Hartley Williams and was there in his first, 1982, book:

Sipping white syrup and cane rum
Glancing through the eyepiece of his ten million magnification telescope
At the edges of the known universe
While his pets strip to their appendix scars
And play brutalising games on the tender swing
And the ex-chef of the French Republic
Made Baked Beans à la Piscine Municipale on toast
And over each other’s bloombright bodies a lot of extras are smearing tomato sauce
While the cheetah is eating the Japanese petunias.

(from ‘Money’)

The passage is a moment in a more complex context. The poem is about money and describes how a poet needs endless wealth in order to write undisturbed, in a monologue delivered by a monkey who belongs to the poet. The monkey is both a figure of imitation, as what writers do, and a reference to the celebrated statement about stochastic processes, that a hundred monkeys with typewriters will after millions of years produce the works of Shakespeare. In the poem, a poet has far too much money and is faced with a beautiful woman who walks out on him because he is not poor and neglected, or again because he wants to know her soul and not her body. It is simply the reverse of a conventional situation, but it is also a brilliant new creation. There is some relationship between the mathematics of the typewriting monkeys and the mathematics of the earth’s position in relation to the whole known universe – something about decay and big numbers, maybe. This ten-line passage is, strictly, an ornament – you could get to the end of the poem without it. Williams mostly writes poems in which ornaments spring up, like themselves, and take over the stage. That goes with a liking for jazz improvisations, giving rise to new melodies, but is not an imitation of that.
This rich poet comes home from a film set to watch a crowd of extras smearing each other with tomato sauce. A memory that flashes up often, for me, is the 1941 film Hellzapoppin. There is a handy sketch of this on Wikipedia:
Shemp Howard begins the film as the projectionist of a cinema, displaying on its screen what appears to be the start of a song-and-dance number whose classily dressed performers walk down a staircase – which collapses as in a fun-house ride, sliding them all straight to hell, where they are tortured by demons. Ole and Chic arrive in the midst of the mayhem by taxi, and after a bit of funny business step back to reveal that it's a movie sound stage. They work for Miracle Pictures, a company using the slogan "If it's a good picture, it's a Miracle!" A mousy screenwriter outlines his script for the screen adaptation of Hellzapoppin', and the rest of the movie depicts Cook's script. Among the topical humour is Johnson picking up a sled named "Rosebud" and saying "I thought they'd burnt that" […]
The film has a frenetic pace, and often breaks the 'Fourth wall', including inner 'fourth walls' introduced by its nonlinear, metafictional narrative.

It is a film about a film about the stage show Hellzapoppin. The film closes with Elisha Cook completing his reading, and the director saying the script is ridiculous, and shooting him numerous times. Cook remains calm and explains that he always wears a bullet-proof vest around the studios. He drinks a glass of water and is surprised to see jets of water pouring out of the holes in his chest. Is this like Hartley Williams? It is certainly like several poems in Hidden Identities. Like the surrealists, Williams relies on the apparatus of an older art; he seems to be always in the middle of some film or opera of extravagantly ornamental visuals and milling action, which somehow is running at the wrong speed and with its inner logic damaged. His camera captures intricate if pointless action everywhere; there is something melancholic about his relationship to this continuous choreographed action, yet he is one of the most energetic of writers. He has found the way to harness the naive energy of the source material, its gorgeous and even barbaric ornament. He has broken into some cinema, with décor lavishly copied from some 17th century ducal theatre, where all the plots ever invented are still running. He shows some old Cecil B. de Mille film, his actors walk into it and continue the action with improvised dialogue. (Shemp Howard got promoted to be one of the Three Stooges, which is pretty hard to believe.)
The Sixties was an era of TV makers with endless libraries of legacy footage which could be cheaply recycled – and recontextualised. If I say that Williams had access to the history of vaudeville, that is also saying that he belonged to the audio-visual world of the Sixties (as I remember it). The Theatre of the Absurd had shed its colouring of anxiety and pointlessness and had acquired a new tone of hedonism, irrational energy, and lack of guilt. Williams describes a pointless universe but he never feels depressed about it. So far as I know, he didn’t publish any poetry at all in the Sixties– but look at the chronology. He was 28 in 1970. A lot of key developments happened to him during that decade of Pop and parties. Being young when youth culture was everything was an experience most people never got over. So, what is the relationship between Surrealism and crazy comedies of the style of Hellzapoppin? This was much discussed even in the 1930s, but I don’t think any conclusion was reached. It is unlikely that the writers of Hellzapoppin were reading André Breton. But, look at Jacques Prévert, one of the two or three most significant Surrealist poets. He made a living as a writer of films. He wrote Voyage surprise (which I saw at school, part of the regime) and especially Drôle de Drame. These were French crazy comedies and they were an attempt to copy the success of this American style. Great films, too. Veteran cultural critics have investigated this question and simply disappeared. It may be true that Oswald Spengler spent his last years as the man in a bear suit who rides a bicycle through the corps de ballet dancing Swan Lake. And Prévert:

Let us trace in our turn
on the wet sand
let us trace as a sign of friendship
a momentary monument to Alphonse Allais
like a chalk cliff
as a souvenir of the sea traced on a café slate
Let us erect this monument to the memory of Alphonse Allais
kind cage attendant of the grand menagerie
where the human beasts, learned and cultivated
devour each other with fine horrified and carious teeth
Acrobatic fairground monument where each acrobat fittingly stylised represents a component of the human pyramid erected to Alphonse Allais
First acrobat: Adam's rib
second acrobat (smaller) : the Adam's apple
third : the thigh of Jupiter
fourth : Achilles' heel
fifth : Moses' rod
sixth : Venus' ankle
seventh : Prometheus' liver
eighth: the sacred heart of J-C
ninth: the head of Medusa
tenth: the ears of Midas
eleventh: the tongue of Aesop
twelfth: Cleopatra’s nose
thirteenth : Lucifer's cock
fourteenth : the finger of God

This menacing moving finger imparts a small wobble to the ensemble of the monument
The number finishes and everyone will jump to the ground and run away uttering cries
and this constantly to the music of Erik Satie
(from “A Alphonse Allais” in La pluie et le beau temps, 1955)

Williams' poetry is in the same key as this. If you inserted this into Hidden Identities, it would fit right in. Williams was much more original than the tired m-stream poetry around him, but he wasn’t writing something which had never been heard of before. I have quoted Prévert, but other Surrealists would do as well. Besides, as I have said, the direct connection to Williams is the theatre of the absurd, and even then the hottest link is to Hollywood films (and TV) of the Sixties which absorbed the most attractive qualities of the Absurd and popularised them. The Absurd revitalised the surrealist line (entering its fourth decade by then), but Ionesco didn't invent something new, he was just writing a surrealist text in a particular form, of a stage sketch. (cf. Prévert's "La famille Tuyau de Poêle", 1935)
The Ship picks up quite a few poems from Hidden Identities, and gives them a dating of “from 1960 to 1980” – this chronology is confusing, it’s hard to keep it straight. Anyway, he won a national poetry prize in 1983 and this was sort of the official arrival of postmodernism in this country, his poem, “Ephraim Destiny’s Perfectly Utter Darkness”, (a sort of parodic Western in which the poem ran away with the initial situation in an obviously fictitious and autonomous way) impressed everyone and made it dazzlingly clear that you could be at the forefront and still win national prizes. It obviously continued HI, which in its turn obviously continued the theatre of the absurd, but it also had a modern tone. Everyone could use the word “ludic” and show that they knew what it meant. Perhaps there was something unexpected, a deeper commitment to a logic developing within the unmotivated literary text, the wish to let the hypothesis develop rather than applying surrealist longings for disconnection and subversion repetitively. You could even say it wasn’t subversive. It was a moment when the poetry managers felt proud of themselves.
The Western fits into an absurdist setting where people take the costumes already present in the costume warehouse of a theatre and pull them on along with the characters, so that the conventions, the same old refrains, of past dramas are present and the expectations are rolling on their own, as a prelude to doing disconcerting and disconnected things, where genres clash and the old plots don’t work. Williams noticeably has mastery of the costume drama, the visual logic is always satisfying even if there is no other logic. The stage orchestra always know what kind of music to play, to illustrate the actions. I think he did help English poetry, which was waiting for a new idea at that moment, to develop something new. Bright River Yonder (1987) was the book, and fits neatly into a teaching whereby postmodernism entered British poetry in the early 1980s via works by Williams, Robert Crawford, Jeremy Reed, Frank Kuppner, John Ash, and Edwin Morgan, and it represented a triumph of hedonism and fantasy, an escape of a million stories from the inhibiting final directions of moral lessons, and it was made possible by the artistic and biological defeat of the 1950s generation and their shared attitudes of bourgeois guardianship and Cold War rigorism. Ambiguously, the return to aesthetic pleasure could also be seen as a protest against the left-wing dogma which had been widespread in the counter-culture, although hardly in the High Street, for a few years after 1968. His exciting productivity over several decades breaks out of this category.
Pop poetry had already been ludic, and the new poetry around 1983 was a deep game, a demonstration of how simple artificial rules could produce unexpected and alluring possibilities.


The first poem in his first book is titled “Chance in Fiction”, and this prominent site may be a message. We have to ask whether the whole project emerges out of theorizing about literature, and whether the idea of chance, made objectively visible through features like montage, is his message. The second poem in Hidden Identities also refers to chance and predictability as mathematical features of texts. It starts out with a joke about the famous monkeys with typewriters who would eventually produce the works of Shakespeare, and rapidly goes on to describe the plots they would generate, standard moments from cinema or the novel: “Lurking behind dark glasses he found the almost inanimate führers of commerce/ coughing up timetables, facts, money, nylons, in their sputum.” It is called “Literature”. It is possible to see this as a philosophical basis for his poetry in general – once you get the idea that a class of texts, not every text of the 19th century but a good chunk of them, represent uncertainty running down, in the demonstration of something which needed to be proved. Preset views, organized knowledge, and texts that run down, all were tied up together. Arguably, all his poems are still moments from inside the room with the monkeys generating plots. Right at the core of Williams’ texts, as a category, is unpredictability – the knobs are turned to settings where plot possibilities are going to expand, as time increases, rather than sink towards a focus, in a possibility cone where lines converge on a single point. Thomas Pynchon is a writer who certainly resembles Williams and is roughly the same age, and who certainly knows about functions that diverge and ones that converge, over time. Is this really about information theory? I don’t think it is. First, the unpredictability is aesthetically motivated rather than an argument which leads to fixed knowledge (or the dispersal of untruth). Secondly, this aesthetic purpose applies also to the leading of life, and a more visible theme of Williams’ poems is a dislike of bureaucratic and predictable people who exercise authority to make life unpleasant for everybody else. A predictable social situation is unpleasurable because without a constant flow of novelty the brain simply switches off. So, once you slot pleasure in as the desired value of a poem, unpredictability follows, as the quality of an ambience which makes pleasure possible. Much the most visible message of Williams’ poetry is dislike of people who inflict boredom on others by devising simple, data-starved, boxes inside which to shut them, and arranging society so that they are unable to get out of these boxes. Locked into simplicity, you become a simple set of reactions –and it follows from that that the grand simplicities of invested knowledge become true. This knowledge is a charter for state bureaucracies, for managers and corporations, but also for religions, for an older notion of Science, and, probably, for a certain kind of writer who wants to be the heir to religious authority and solemnity. Williams’ poems are perpetually attacking this knowledge. He is more focused on pleasure than on protest and subversion, but this is the effect anyway. I think the managers at High Street publishers twitched every time he attacked convention – no names named, they knew it was their pet poets who were in the frame. Let’s see an actual poem ‘The Cat Up the Tree’ (in HI):

In the grand outside they met the following:
Thin, mealy-mouthed people with seborrhea;
Big, friendly, knife-you-in-the-back moralists;
Bulgarian lady academic expert sociologists with V.D.;
Cautious, reserved, intelligent people who were monuments to avarice & pride;
Radically intellectual wives who’d cut off your balls before they lost a point;
Men who knew about the levels of meaning in Donne;
Diplomatic representatives who had been to Oxford & Cambridge simultaneously;
Women who said “O.K. but hurry up”;
People who were always in a hurry but not OK;
Women who thought not being a woman was it;
Men who thought women were it;
Writers who had published books and thought this was it;
Very few who had looked into
The quietly orbiting eye of the nothing cat [.]

The “outside” refers to life after university and so to the freedom and free socialising which they had enjoyed as students. The passage quoted is a catalogue (12 entries, not unlike the 16 acrobats) of the repressors – not unconventional, it reminds me of Logue’s book Devil, Maggot, and Son, where the free man is afraid of being caught by the devil, or the maggot (of death), or the birth of a son who would tie him down to supporting the household and so on. The people named are concrete problems in life, not restrictive practices in texts. The catalogue structure is typical – the ability to pin so many rays to one centre is virtuosic. It brings delight. It is extravagant. We are seeing a moment of discovery: the poetry emerges from a logical structure which the poet is working through – but as each step is taken we experience pleasure and surprise. Rather than talking about style history, it might be simpler just to say that Williams is a better poet than his contemporaries. He plays a million notes at the critical moment and slides past the tedious moments without ever touching them. The poem is about pointlessness, its last line is “most foregather in the presence of an absent god”. It’s the Theatre of the Absurd, the actions of the characters are repetitive and frantic and ritual because there is no deeper purpose in life. He rarely returned to this theme, but this poem reads like a manifesto, and its doctrine is that the Muse, or goddess, is a cat stuck up a tree: “She’s deaf. She’d like /to see our stuff. She’s blind. Her pink, / refulgent yawn contains/ the possibility of a disappearing trick.” But you can’t read the poem without noticing that it offers the possibility of a good life which involves pleasure, sociability, etc., and that the poem itself is pleasurable and not to be revoked by the failings of a blind and deaf cat as the ultimate judge.
Does this poetry come out of literary theory? The key is to take a moment of a possible landscape and devise a dozen possibilities for it. Certainly, some people who theorise can speculate in this way, certainly the point of going away from specific texts into the nebula of Theory is to reach moments of unrestricted possibility. But Williams did not necessarily get into his landscape of multiple possibilities by reading post-structuralists, as opposed to listening to jazz musicians define possibility as the condition of music. Or by encountering surrealism in whatever form.
A key-film for these poems could be La Dolce Vita (and its follow-up, 8/12, (otto e mezzo)). The young people retreating into the grand outside correspond to the young men in I vitelloni. Quite a few of the poems have an Anita Ekberg lolling somewhere in them. Fellini fielded a large number of attractive actresses in those films – but you can’t simplify them by passing over the fact that they centre on an actor attractive to women, Mastroianni, and the setting was scenes where attraction and exploration and fantasy were eminently possible. La dolce vita isn’t really about work. Its hero wanders through a series of out of control parties where people go through behavior routines which are condensed, irrational, compulsive, and highly direct. The plot might be that Mastroianni is lost and frustrated, but what grips the audience is the spectacle of the party-goers. The West was crashing into a new era of total leisure – self-realisation where fantasy replaces the real. This is the scenario which Williams’ poems take place inside.

This is a review of Blues (Cape Poetry, 2004, 85 pp.), recycled. In 'Dan Dare at the Cosmic Ballroom', the clean-cut English space hero (from a strip in the Eagle comic which I used to read in the 1960s) lands on Venus and meets his arch-enemy The Mekon, only to find that this is the planet of love:

Welcome to the planet
humans dream of on their cold blue ball.
Welcome to the temperature of pleasant being.
Dispel colonial ideas.

He goes through a door into a lurching ground of a million false perspectives, a labyrinth-maze above a fall:

From vertigo, the chorussing abyss
reiterates its roundelay of little death:
La-la again. La-la again. La-la again.

Next, he has a close encounter with Venusian green tea. The next adventure involves the waitress, and breaking the most basic rule of his spaceman training – no alien sex. 'She puts out tentacles. They slide between my ribs,/ Dote upon the organs they encounter./ My pump begins its agonising pump./ She slips a duct into my sac of seed/ and instantly replenishes my emptying./ Once the circuit's made, she whispers,/ it's unbreakable(.)' He lies back and thinks of Earth, and there he is– in a simulation run by The Mekon's IT. In the virtual planet (or is it the real one?), which turns out to be a park where Time is the theme, midget dinosaurs sniff at his boots, a million quantum-entangled Dan Dares hop around. At the bottom of the mountain, Dare breaks into a dance with the Dionysiac corps de ballet there, strips, plunges into the sea, and feels the perfect sensation of home.
Williams is radically original, and constantly remaking himself. But we could float an idea of him as an Eastern European poet, one of the heroic breed who have abandoned hope in causes and instead are always interesting, relying on individuality and on the vigour of folklore. Fellini got out of neorealismo through the comic strips (fumetti) of Lo Sceicco Bianco, and haunts this comic strip poem – but Fellini may have influenced modern Eastern European styles, especially in cinema. A closer equivalent might be the films of Emir Kusturica. (There is a hint that J.H. Williams in Serbia may have been a try-out for Dan Dare on Venus.) Looking at Kusturica, we can perhaps class him as a folk surrealist:

let us eat cabbage soup in
the unearthly light of fat women‘s
eyes, the fire & the clock will stroke
us. let chimney-tops fall. I am
wrapped to a gradual understanding
(from 'Lübeck' in Hidden Identities).

Williams has a complete grasp of cutting to action and never decelerating. It's like the technique of painting on a bowl – once you've got it, the rhythm never comes to an end. This is the folklore aspect – heroes in folklore never pay the bill, never run out of adventures, never stop for a seminar. It's not unlike the Endless Highway rambling of the Blues – and makes most of the poetry I review look didactic and bureaucratic.
Baroque painting is not totally absent from the worlds of Fellini and Central European cinema, and the notion of trick perspective may help us to grasp Williams' prodigious technique, its combination of dislocated verticals and legend. Poems on the elbow, the ankle, and the sneeze (or, forcible lyric ejaculation) show a distortion of normal proportions – a super-realism. Translated to the topology of a plot, this simply means – the ability to suggest a thousand paths.
'Not Till the Last Saxophone' offers an explanation of the title:

Snowflakes big as tongues
feel with a blur for your eyes
onward, friend,
to the town where eternity becomes fashionable,
where trains have not been seen in weeks
This is it boy. The blues
Hoist your bag better on your shoulders
These are the long, cold deepwalking drifts.

– where the protagonist trudges through a world of pain into folklore, into an unbreakable circuit, into vagrancy and a music where 'Stars are a Hammond organ,/ solo hailstones,/ hard on the roof of your head.' Every tonal value is vivid, heightened, naive. The camera can be a documentary tool, or the channel for dreams – and Williams has mastered the quality of dream where everything flows and everything makes sense even in the middle of panic fear, erotic cloudbursts, losing your handhold on the sky and falling.
'Sarajevo Dancing' is an account of collective violence in Bosnia, rendered through tags from Serbian heroic songs and through the image of the kolo, the circle dance. With arms linked, you have to go as fast as everyone else. This loss of individuality is a poetic equivalent for hysteria. The kolo is the triumph of community, and the community in question massacred its neighbours. The poem starts serenely and gradually accelerates into delirium, voices from heaven, fantasies of mutilation. 'Lazar, the choice is yours/  a heavenly or an earthly kingdom'. Amazingly, the poem matches its material.

Paint Splashes
One of his last works was a work called Paint Splashes which is in some way a translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations (a kind of manuscript painting amongst other things). The poet has said this was a response to the riots and disaffections of summer 2011, which followed the police shooting of a man named Mark Duggan. “In London, where I was at the time, a mob was destroying the quartier a few streets east of where I sat. By chance I had come across a new 'translation' of this very work and contemplated it with scorn.” But, what a translation:

The little deaths were taking place behind the rose bushes. Pregnant mothers had climbed on top of the clowns. The cheated cradles wept over the sand. A devilish fraternity of voyeurs, growling like brass bands, had crouched down in an oily field. We buried the elderly upright in memory of their gloves.
A crush of golden femininity was trying to break out of the general's house. We ran down the red road to the asylum; it was up for sale – torture chambers included – and the Iranian owners had all been arrested. The rehabilitated were making egg boxes out of clay and zombies were cruising the delphiniums with open macs. They'd put high fences round anything worth seeing. No gasping targets were anywhere to be found.
We sent prayers up and down our legs. What was the point of the poultry then? We stayed buttoned up. Windmills were being crucified for milking the pudding. We could see the noses of the ill-bred moles.

This is an astonishing re-imagining of a classic text of the avant-garde which also folds back the riots of 2011 back onto the Commune. Typical of this poem is simultaneous action, as in any riot I imagine. If we go back to “Money”, in the passage I quoted there are four lines of simultaneous action. Hartley Williams sets parallel scenes in train and pulls his camera back to capture a depth where all are visible. So many poets have one line moving, the Ego, and everything else is frozen, passive, inert. Each of Williams’ poems deals with expanding possibilities. Proof seems to require the depopulation of the linguistic space, where at the end only one possibility survives. And this condition is truth. Williams proves nothing and is in a sense not dealing with ideas. But perhaps the thesis is more of the nature of a geometrical shape; one which expands from its point of origin. This curve is the idea he makes plain.

Note on influences
Exile in Berlin may explain why he does not fit in with the style chronology of poetry back in the Homeland. He had radical originality, but this also brings the possibility of not being in anyone’s party and so mysteriously not being there when it comes to retrospectives and anthologies. The High Street editors are nervously attuned to shifts of fashion, and if you as a poet don’t know what those shifts (petulant, mostly vacuous, born out of boredom) are, you can’t adapt to them. I can’t detect any German influence in the poems. Of course, absurdist dramas were written by German writers like Wolfgang Hildesheimer and Günter Grass, but that isn’t a hot trail. Williams has affinities with Eastern European poets, as I indicated. (There is a slight resemblance to the Austrian poet Hans C. Artmann, I suppose.)
I am going to dwell for a moment on Pop poetry, because people don’t remember it clearly. A key source is Pete Roche’s 1967 Corgi anthology, Love Love Love. I am going to quote two poems from this.

Isis searching in the rushes
for her murdered lover … small girl with a fishingrod
in a rushing valley full of ferns … the last supper
followed by the Four Just Desserts … watching the 
white mocking figure at the edge of the Dark Forest
… beating naked blondhaired girls with
longstemmed purple flowers… Osiris judging
the dead mist rising up the valley seaweed tangled
in her moonlight hair

(Adrian Henri, from “Holcombe Poem”)

But it can be done and thank Blake it is done,
Making good love, making good good love.
In houses built of fly-turds, in fly-turd feasting mansions,
Fly-fear insurance offices even,
Fly-worshipping cathedrals even,
Even in murder offices just off the corridors of fly-power

(A. Mitchell, from “Peace is Milk”)

(Getting rid of hyphens was seen as modernistic in 1967. Wild!) In these moments we see the elements of Williams’ style. In each case, an image makes itself autonomous and expands. Mitchell makes an initial image stretch to 200 lines. Two points raise themselves. First, the question of what happened to this style, which seemed about to take over in, say, 1967 to 1972. One answer is that someone came along and did it a thousand times better, and the original style was forgotten. Secondly, how Williams fits into this simple style, practised by an unusually large number of people born within 5 years of him, and linked to song lyrics of the time. As pointed out, he was just so much better a writer. I suspect that most of the contributors to Love Love Love weren’t even writing poetry by 1982. Williams was far more skilled and ambitious than those forgotten teenagers and deserved to replace them. Compare this passage from Williams’ first book:

I knew the Bailiff had invented her,
Remarked the Count, a flight
To an outlying farm, her simplicity:
Back to business, back to foolishness.
I sipped a new wine from the vineyard,
Of ice, it tasted, and of elder-leaf.
There were accounts to do and mail to read.
His face came
Close to mine, his misinterpreter.
If I could give some help, you understand?
And he, implicit in my good discretion,
Who knew no boundaries of talk himself.
(When I ride out alone, a rainy afternoon
You can be sure
The world will not be deaf about it.)
Would a woman find him attractive?

Many were waiting for an interview,
Loafing in the corridor outside,
But Gabriel had sent me proofs.
I could not help imagining his shop,
The browsers leafing through the stock.
Now, would they murder for the latest verse?
(from “Five Anecdotes of The Count”)

(NB this passage isn’t in the 2004 version of the poem.) The Count is a figure clipped out of some film, an Eastern European feudal aristocrat with interesting vices, a sort of George Sanders turn, Ingrid Pitt as milkmaid, Mischa Auer as the village balalaika-tuner and Theosophist, but just look how much more real he is than the thin dreams of Henri and Mitchell. Mitchell is a slave to dogma and is plodding along earnestly until he has made his rather obvious point. We don’t get much chance to get away from the group while he is in charge. How many times does he repeat himself in just five lines? Henri believes in fantasy but once he has found his sensation (normally remembered from a painting or a film) he gets tired very quickly. The italics and the dots show the image breaking up, it will never emerge out of vagueness. beaten with long-stemmed flowers, give me a break! Williams is staging a whole film while Henri has a clandestine few seconds of liberty and then gives up. (NB Osiris judging the dead mist, there may be a line missing here. Or Henri is being less pedestrian than we have a right to hope. Possible amendment, Osiris judging the dead … mist rising up the valley …seaweed tangled in her moonlight hair.) More interesting is a comparison with Brian Marley, someone else close to surrealism and to jazz. Let’s quote Marley.

(his body flashes around
the sun – concept disapproved by the church;
plenum ventilation surging through the bones)
You must know it this magnetic nihilism
has ceased leaving a warm passionate air
that tickles my sex to a strong feather
Or the seasons snap across like brittle twigs:
ghost of an author researching his double-
negative for evidence of implied amour
his lobes pincered calm used as a buttress
with the black soul of a pimp cleaning up
presenting a hopeful edge as he travels south

(from ‘Little Heart Clusters’)
That is from his 1978 book Springtime in the Rockies. The comparison shows why Williams belongs in 1000 bookshops and Marley doesn’t. They are drawing on the same stylistic ideas; Marley’s work is more patterned but not as lucid.
We saw Williams spin off a catalogue of 12 variations on one theme – and there are 800, maybe even 1000, pages of his poetry. Detailed description is not the way to go. So far as I am concerned, all the books are brilliant. They are also quite similar. So we can halt here. But not before I quote from one of the pamphlets, in some ways lost works. This is from a 2011 pamphlet and a poem called ‘Casino’:

Poverty drags Vallejo shoes through leaves
It piles autumns on autumns in the vineyard of the owl
The murmuring of mice in the greetings betrays it
The stillness of fishermen reveals it
The silhouette of language grimaces through a mirror

Fading, the strangeness is always fading…
Onto the bare boards of a room without casualties
Nurses are brought to the sparkling wine
And the crouching artist in his attic reveals
A Ligurian map of freckles on the suntanned belly of a girl

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Prynne and Christopher Dawson

Dawson and The White Stones

One of the poems in The White Stones is based on the story of a mediaeval missionary to China printed in a book edited by the historian Christopher Dawson. Dawson was also a friend of David Jones from the 1920s on, and one of the 50 influences cited by him in the introduction to The Anathemata.
The book is The Mongol Missions and it was published in 1955. The translator is an anonymous English nun. I am using a download of the American edition, Mission to Asia. The book includes the narrative of “John of Plano Carpini” (there are other ways of reproducing this place-name) who set out on his mission to the Mongol court in 1240. The poem is 'Frost and Snow, Falling' and has “On the 9th of May, 1247 they began their home journey”, which is a quotation from p. xv of Dawson's introduction to the volume (American edition by Harper Torchbooks). To be exact they reached Batu's camp on 9th May and waited there a month before receiving Imperial permission to travel.
At the first sighting on the horizon, it seems possible that there is an ideological link, and that Dawson's ideas were somehow taken up by Prynne and offer an overlap between two generations of great poetry, Jones and Prynne. Less than a second later, I imagine, this starts to seem utterly unlikely. Dawson was a Catholic historian whose positions were a reaction to Spengler's, but who was mainly a professional historian, not a theorist, and whose abilities as a thinker were modest – inhibited by an English diffidence and dislike of abstractions which was not eased by his loyalty to the Church of Rome (and the very limited scope it allowed to original thought by men not in holy orders). 'Frost and Snow' draws on the original 13th C text of Piano Carpini and not at all on original work by Dawson. So, in doing this piece of research, I am expecting to neutralise the idea that there could be a link between Prynne and Dawson (and indeed Jones, Spengler, and Catholic theorists of the decay of Western civilisation). It seems at first glance that Prynne, writing 'Frost and Snow, Falling', was interested in the high snowfall deep inside the Eurasian land mass, and the causal basis of farming, and culture thriving on its surplus production, in a climate which had less snow and did not freeze the seed of any arable crop in the ground. Peasant economy, and feudalism, and the Catholic Church, therefore had an eastern edge, and Carpini travelled beyond it.

A phrase from Letter to the Ephesians

Cosmocrats of the Dark Aeon” is a non-Biblical phrase which appears in Dawson's 1939 book Beyond Politics and again in David Jones' poem The Narrows. Dawson is re-translating this from the Greek, Ephesians 6:12 in the King James version has:
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against...
But there is a longer version:

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the lords of this age, rulers of this darkness, against spiritual
– as there are two different versions of this text on-line. It is my bad luck to hit on a verse which exists in two different forms. The Greek version I have does not have the extra phrase, but there must be some basis for it. The Douay-Rheims English version is For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.” This is the standard Catholic translation and Dawson was probably referring to this longer text (whatever language he used).
The Greek Testament I have says kosmokratoras tou skotou tou. The word aeon is not in this Greek text and the 'darkness' is evidently spiritual darkness. It is credible that the idea of the visible world as being a snare is a Gnostic element picked up by Paul at a moment when Gnosticism was not clearly divided from Christian doctrines. Dawson's injection of the word “aeon”, one of the keywords of Gnostic thought, is a puzzling echo of this. If this world is ruled by the powers of darkness, it is not in the hands of God – and our senses are giving us wrong information. Christ was incarnated into a hostile cosmos. This is Gnostic. The darkness (skotos) can only be the flooding of the senses with deceitful information.
What did Dawson mean? He was certainly thinking of human, secular powers, and these were probably any technocratic and inorganic power, not just the totalitarian States of the 1930s.
It was his luck to provide tiny pieces which were picked up by two great poets.

'The Narrows' was not published during Jones' lifetime but was included in The Roman Quarry, a volume taken from his archive, which did not include the Notes which all the Faber books had. It is a monologue of a Roman soldier and includes that phrase from Dawson's 1939 book and relates to the English Channel as a barrier against invasion – so a composition date of around 1940, with German invasion being actively feared, seems credible. His character foresees wars:

Still more, and internecine too,
when the cosmocrats of the dark aeon
find themselves
wholly at a loss
in the meandered labyrinth of
their own monopolies.

Reading Dawson, it seems likely that Jones' version of the “cosmocrats” was the financial powers which ran the Empire, owned it, kept the profits from it, and that his interpretation of the phrase was anti-capitalist. The critique must include the forces of war – both the technology which makes modern war so cruel, the governments whose policies favour it, the armaments cartels which were so often discussed back then, and the unholy alliance of press interests and public passions which gave militarism its chance.
The most accurate reading of Ephesians 6:12 is as about invisible, spiritual, malign powers. That is a kind of Christian occultism. Paul says they are not of flesh and blood. There is almost no chance that Jones read the verse in this way. He was a 20th century man. However, he was concerned with the spiritual history of mankind and his interest in secular politics, income distribution, legislation, etc. should not be exaggerated.
The triple invocation of Powers is cast in terms sounding like Court ceremonial, and for that reason I suspect that the original is a spell of conjuration (since these were calqued on Court honorifics and means of address), and that the author of Ephesians had heard some of these spells. These are terms of flattery. It is amusing to compare them with the titles of offices at the Welsh Court which Jones picks up in two passages of The Sleeping Lord. There is indeed a Welsh tract which describes the officials of the court and their duties (“the Notitia of degrees and precedences”, he calls it). It is the kind of thing which nationalists stare at while thinking how there were no more Welsh courts after the completed English conquest, so 1282 at latest. The old Welsh poetry was full of flattery and attribution of titles takes up a large part in it. When Jones reels off “penmilwyr, aergwn, aergyfeddau, cymdeithiau yn y ffosydd, cadfridogion, tribuni militum”, he is re-enacting a central function. This whole passage has an occult echo of “powers, principalities, cosmocrats of the dark aeon”.
So much in the new thought of around 1918-1940 derives from Oswald Spengler. He more or less invented cultural criticism. But very little of it agrees with him – it was generally a reaction against him. Dawson and Jones were so intensely involved with Spengler, in the 1920s, that this is where they got their start. Disagreeing with him line by line.

Christopher Dawson

The key thing in Dawson, for Jones, is the long chronological span – he sees the last two thousand years as one era and definitely regards the high Middle Ages, with the unbroken Catholic orthodoxy and the acknowledged power of the church, as the best time. In fact, his first book, The Age of the Gods, describes the origins of European culture in the 1st millennium BC, again with the realm of the divine as something real and autonomous from which anything to do with art and philosophy derives as a secondary expression. The Dividing of Christendom deals with the modern centuries, less interested in the development of cities, printing, manufacturing, and so on, than in the loss of religious unity, which for him is the supreme descriptor of the whole era. He does not seem interested in the much earlier division of the Eastern Church from the Western. He sticks to the version of historical events accepted by other Western scholars, so that his original thought is not given much space in the books and has to be worked out from the unstated assumptions. Thus Beyond Politics is not a demand for the end of democracy, although he says that there is no point in having more than one party, because they cancel each other out, and that totalitarianism is better than “heresies and sects”, i.e. Protestantism, because it offers spiritual unity. He is completely preoccupied with unity, and this alone would make it hard for him to develop any original ideas without being overcome with guilt.
When he writes about the Mongol Khanate, he singles out certain tribes near Mongolia who were already Christian, and only reluctantly discloses that they are Nestorian and not Catholic. He is unhappy about the differences between Europe and Inner Asia and looks forward to them disappearing as a result of a Catholic mission – this is the theme of the book. The idea of focussing on the differences between Europe and the semi-arid steppe, of tracing features of social organisation back to the economic and climatic base, is quite alien to him. Dawson wants to define societies through their religions, and the effects on art and law of religion, and has no interest in sociology as a possible factor in history.
Dawson is writing in Beyond Politics in response to the rise of totalitarianism in Europe. He is definitely against it, although too kind a man not to find positive features in it. He is definitely not asking for the abolition of democracy in favour of some kind of Catholic corporatism offering firm leadership from above and the benevolent silencing of secular culture. He talks wistfully about the corporatist state in Austria as a “Catholic experiment”; the Schuschnigg regime (after the assassination of Dollfuss, its founder) is generally classified now as fascist (“Austro-fascist”) but as Dawson does not seem to know any details about it we can pass by this as just a muddled and inchoate lapse. Dollfuss abolished the parliament in March 1933.
Dawson's writing on the Middle Ages sees them as a period of unity. If we look at 10th century Europe, we see above all a decentralised region with poor roads, few towns, and an amazing diversity of languages and dialects. Diversity is the most obvious feature. If Dawson sees only unity, it is because he is attentive only to a tiny educated elite, who use a standard Latin and communicate with each other in writing, also bound into a corporation, what we call the Church. His belief in unity seems strikingly wrong. This is a colonial view of Europe, through the eyes of a corporate group with shared assets. He does not regard the other 99.5% of the population, the ones who did not know Latin, as valid interlocutors. He is projecting unity based on the religion he belongs to and on a language which he learnt at school, and is disqualifying at every step anything which speaks any other language or is not part of religious activity. If you scrap the evidence, what is left is homogeneous and must have unity. It looks as if he is exchanging legal fictions, generalised ideals, for real and local experience. The differences between Irish, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse cultures, as recovered from their surviving literatures, suggest profound regional differences even in one part of north-west Europe.
His 1939 book is interpreting 1930s Europe in the same terms, where differences between classes and parties in a country, or between different countries, are disastrous. To sum up, Beyond Politics is a flimsy work, unsystematic, muddled, and without one significant new idea. He gives much space to coronation as the way in which Catholic ethics could seize control of the secular power, but gives no reason to think that this would have any practical effect at all – more, because he is talking about Britain the Catholicism is irrelevant.
The most original idea in the book is about an organization in the intellectual world which would integrate it in the way that the Church organizes spiritual life – as the Press is too influenced by the government and by capitalists. He really wants every book to say the same thing – again, he is dominated by the idea of unity and seems unfamiliar with the idea that innovation, free contest between competing views, speculation, or debate, can possibly produce anything of worth. No, everything was already there in the 12th century. Anything new is division. He doesn't make clear what form this normative and corporate organisation would take. I would like to know more about this, but my guess is that it had no substance and nobody else picked it up. (It was a time when writers in Europe were forming associations.) I would suggest that the knowledge economy is protected, not by a bureaucracy separate from the researchers, but by intellectual standards which have been internalised by them. If we skip ahead to the 1950s, civil society is often preoccupied by intellectual method, as highlighted by ideologies, Fascist, Marxist or indeed Catholic, which threaten both the quality of knowledge and civil society. This method actually is an organisation for scholars and journalists. It allows the free competition of ideas. Dawson, though, really seems disturbed by the idea that two books could say different things. We do all have internalised standards (which amount to an “institution”) but one of those is that we all write different books! Dawson's dislike of this is almost a neurological style – the idea of reading more than one historian, of having more than one political party, makes him uncomfortable, it is discord and ill-health. In the 1920s, the disaster of the Great War has discredited authority, and every inherited idea is being challenged. One kind of young person thrives on this, loves the new modernist art. Another kind hates it and wants a return to authority and classicism as quickly as possible.
Dawson basically wants the abolition of political parties, but has strong anglocentric inhibitions which prevent him from reaching a conclusion on this and indeed from writing in a logical way.
The impact of The Making of Europe and The Age of the Gods was partly their sense of the very long chronological scale. This may show up in Jones' poems where history reaches a crisis or turning-point, where a thousand years concentrate in a single moment. But it seems also that this very long perspective was helped by his indifference to change or to local effects: he wasn’t interested in the differences between between different European countries or different centuries and his books prefer not to register them. He did see links between some institution in the 3rd century and some process in the 12th century. This narrative is blank and epic at the same time.

Frost and Snow

The passage of Carpini quoted in the poem is at page 70 of the Mission to Asia book.
The idea is that every sedentary society is the same, and that the alternative, of wandering, is the opposite which makes every feature of sedentarism become apparent – losing inevitability to become a suitable subject for reflexive knowledge. “The wanderer with his thick staff […] he is our only rival.” The nomad is illiterate, no nomad society has ever had much to do with writing, and a scrounger – he cannot store food because he only has what he can carry. The poem belongs with a number of others in The White Stones as reflections on the end of the Ice Age and the differences between the Mesolithic and the Neolithic as phases of British prehistory.

So that when the snow falls again the earth
becomes lighter and lighter. The surface con-
spires with us, we are its first-born. Even
in this modern age, we leave tracks, as we
go. And as we go, walk, stride or climb
out of it, we leave that behind, our own
level contemplation of the world. The monk
Dicuil records that at the summer solstice
in Iceland a man could see right through the
night, as of course he could. That too is a
quality, some generous lightness which we
give to the rival when he comes in. The tracks
are beaten off, all the other things underground.

this is beautiful but also rational. The interest is in the relation between soil regimes and the energy flux from the sun – the description of the monk Dicuil's observations in Iceland, around AD 830, is there because solar light controls climate and only after this does mankind lead what life is possible in that climate. The description of snow as shining with light is singularly beautiful – however, the point is rather the reverse, that the cold is due to the lower insolation, of solar heat, at high latitudes, the thinner vegetation, and the scattered pastoral economy that follows from this. Of course it is also about how you feel, and how the air on your skin and the light beaming into your eyes affect this.
Because Prynne goes back to the Mesolithic, and the end of the last local Ice Age roughly 10,000 years ago, it is possible to define a resemblance to Spengler, and to Dawson as someone whose intellectual conception was shaped by opposition to Spengler, in the interest in “the morphology of cultures” and in very long chronological spans. I can't just abolish this. However, Dawson and Prynne disagree on just about everything, and few thinkers could have less bearing on Prynne than Dawson. To be honest, I don’t think Dawson was a great influence on Jones either – he just wasn't original and decisive enough as a thinker. Jones was developing his ideas in the 1920s, when everything seemed to be falling apart, and was fascinated by Spengler, who redefined the West as merely one culture among other subjects of “cultural morphology” in a long chronological perspective. Dawson went through exactly the same experience, and was a companion of Jones rather than his guide. Prynne's historical ideas come from geographers, the flow of “historical geography”; that whole lowland zone of Spengler's hypnotising speculations and the re-Christianising counter-attack passed him by.