Friday, 14 December 2018

Critique of the metropolitan elite

Critique of the metropolitan elite

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

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

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

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

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

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