Friday, 29 March 2019

forgotten poets - the 1970s


Notes on peripheral work for the project on “poetry of the 1970s”.

John Smith. It was necessary to read Smith because he was made a Poetry Book Society choice twice, in 1958 and 1973, and this is probably unique. I started with Entering Rooms (1973), which includes the poem 'The Prologue'. This describes someone entering a featureless white room and being unable to detect small features because the white blanks out differences. So the human is in an artificial environment, one where all information is withheld and has to be acquired by sensory exploration.

Curiously enough you will at first refrain from touching it
Though unaware of the reason. You will kneel down
And gaze upon it for a long time. Because there are no shadows
You will not at once discover that it possesses a small groove
Encircling it some one and a half inches from the top.
Not until you touch it with your fingers will you know this.
So it may be a box, a box with no fastener.
However the lid, if it is a lid, refuses to lift
Though refusal, for such an inanimate block, is a word
Too human and personal, say rather it will not move.
Therefore it may merely be a solid cube of wood.

This is intriguing, although it is striking that he has devised a white cube without connecting to the “white cube” which was so much discussed in avant garde art. My guess is that this is a significant poem but Smith has not gone through that door into real mystery and the unknown because he felt alone, he was not in contact with a community of experimental writers who would have both competed with him and encouraged him to go beyond. It is not a great poem, because its real charge is conceptual but it is weighed down by a literal description of the space, which discourages us from conceptual exploration. My feeling about the book is that he went into the unknown but came back too quickly. I certainly liked that poem. It reminds me of 'The Cut Pages', by Roy Fisher.
I looked also at Excursus in Autumn (1958). The wrapper has a design deriving from the “Festival Design Group”, using physical forms acquired from looking through a microscope compelling for me. It looks like a textile print. The text around it has familiar themes from the 1950s reaction – the poet is meritorious because he has abandoned modernity and thinking about ideas and has no ambition. So much for the sales tactics! You shouldn’t swallow these, and indeed Smith offers us an 18-part poem on the life of the Buddha which hardly fits into 1950s-style restrictions. He wasn't in revolt – but he also hadn't taken on the cultural politics of the 1950s, he isn't using the set themes of the time, the clichés of the academic poets born in the 1920s. JS was born in 1924, and this was already his fourth book (omitting one early one). In 1990 he published a book or pamphlet, 'For Paul Klee'. Depressing in a way  I mean that, if he had accepted in 1948 that poetry had to be MODERN in the same way that Paul Klee's art was MODERN, he might have been a more powerful poet (even if the conservatives around him would have made his life hell). Further – Klee was a generation older than him, the classic formulation would be to get with art which is totally modern and also from your generation, your contemporaries. There is a poem, already in 1958, about a Klee etching:

Now see: two mandarins in this desert meet
Naked and bald as coots; their spindle-shanks
Spider the sand with flat and horny feet;
A scrubby hair spouts from their scrawny flanks.
Who could suppose that scarecrow shapes like these
Would court such ceremonial niceties
As to consider their respective ranks?

This isn’t bad, but it's so conventional compared to Klee even though he is providing the subject matter (which is two people meeting when each thinks that the other is of higher rank). The ability to make an argument in tight verse is astounding, I don't think people can do that any more. John Holloway or Roy Fuller could do that. I think “formalist” is the word, and as Homberger says this was on the way out by 1964. The book also includes 'Winter Morning':

The razors of the wind have shaved the sky
To apple brightness of astringent green
And on that glass rock-crystal geese are strung
Frozen like sharp stars necklacing the sun
Till midday melts the wires on which they hang
And to the swan-white woods they squawk and fly.

Well, this is good. We can't deny that. It has the qualities of decorum and repressed tension you look for in Fifties poetry. but it doesn’t suggest something great. I don't want to push Smith back out of history, but this isn't going to rewrite the story of that Twenties-born generation. The symmetry of the verse gives it a serenity which poetry no longer has – the impersonality fixes it into position. The love poems don't attempt wisdom and this gives them a vulnerability. The serene framework gives us a serene view of uncertainty, frustration, vulnerability. The framework doesn’t have to shake because the subject is excited. The love has a reality outside the person feeling it. This may be because it can have a life longer than the short time frame of self-consciousness. Love songs of the era before rock and roll are out of fashion but they still bear listening to. There was a selected poems (1948 to 82) which includes a long poem, new in 1982, in what looks like a formalist and avant garde style. I only got a brief look at this, it looked original, witty, but not a game changer.
He was a literary agent. This meant he was making money for writers. He was also editor of Poetry Review for two or three years, and no doubt published a lot of poets. This kind of thing makes you friends. I think this goes some way to explain his double victory with the PBS panel. I am not saying that the books aren't worth reading, rather that they aren’t triumphs and we don't have to rewrite history to accommodate them. He doesn’t feature in the anthologies and this is a wrong outcome – you can’t simply rely on the anthologies and a mainstream anthology may not capture all the good mainstream poets.

I also read 'Artorius', by John Heath-Stubbs. I read at least one review when this came out, in 1973, and have managed to spend 45 years avoiding it. But finally, I read it. It is almost as bad as I expected. It is not going in my list of “long poems of the 1970s”. It is difficult to rehabilitate Heath-Stubbs – Jim Keery included a poem of his in JK's (as yet unpublished) Apocalypse. An Anthology which I rather liked. Working out why someone didn't write well involves too many unknown quantities – but Heath-Stubbs was gay and unable to write frankly about his feelings – and too culturally conservative to put real energy into a revolt against social and stylistic norms. Myth, specifically Christian myth, was the most likely path for him to write about his deepest concerns in a linguistic pattern distanced and ornate enough to disguise the personal origins. He did write about myths and saints, quite a lot. But myth was so much the special subject of the Apocalyptics, and he felt so trapped as a conservative of a generation which was swept away by aggressive conservatives in the early Fifties, that this promising solution area was fraught with powerful inhibitions (and not able to offer a release from inhibitions). George Barker was his natural model (and the collected is dedicated to him with “homage”), but the chances of him writing barkerian poetry were blocked off behind mine-fields and marshes. He was not a courageous writer. His natural bent was to regress to the 19th century, not to take on the 20th with its alarming demands for frankness, sincerity, and individuality. He was forthright in conversation, there is that famous anecdote of him saying to Martin Seymour-Smith “I am a Christian, a homosexual and a poet”, while the vessel with the dinner in it heated up and exploded. If he had written poetry about the validity of being a Christian homosexual, it could have been great poetry, but of course he never did that. I can't really write about him as a gay poet because he had walled it off too successfully. (Martin was there with someone, can’t now remember who.)
The poem in 'Apocalypse. An Anthology' is 'The Hill', published 1946:

All night long in the garden under the cypresses
I heard the song of the childish dead, chirping
With black dried lips, like crickets in the beams,
And the silence of the stream whose watery tongue is gone.
But now with a sound of trumpets
The sun, of golden feathers, beating his wings
Through the granular ether, out of his eastern cave
Of darkness comes – a bird, whose iron beak
Is pointed at my dry and singing brain.
And so early in the morning I climb to this hill
Islanded in blue intense of the circling air,
Hearing only the long melancholy line of the shepherd’s piping
Or calling to his dog down there in the valley.

I couldn't work out what the plot of this poem is, it sounds like part of the New Testament but the pattern has been broken up and re-fitted wrongly. The early poems at around pages 219 to 330 of the Collected are worth thinking about. Not 'Artorius'. Those poems are apparently based on known myths but are also unparaphrasable – the plots go wrong. The obscurity provides a vague area in which original events can emerge, protected by half-light. It is as if we had a collection of Classical paintings of saints being martyred and Greek gods doing various extreme things, in exotic landscapes, and they were being subtly repainted, not to get rid of the naked bodies and the extreme experiences, but to change the story and make it even less natural. But also – the poem fits perfectly into Apocalypse. An Anthology and Heath-Stubbs' repeated and petulant cry that he had nothing to do with them is denying what everyone else can see. Anxiety and obscurity fight their way to centre stage and the rest is hidden behind them.
Francis King's autobiography has an anecdote about Oxford poets circa 1945. John Lehmann, the most influential publisher of new literature, was visiting Oxford, and asked for a young poet to stay in the same house with him to act as guide. Lehmann was owed a lot of favours and liked to spread his favours around. The top boys had a meeting to deal with this, and the solution found was to offer Heath-Stubbs. Even Lehmann wouldn't make a pass at him, he wasn't good-looking enough.

The book I wrote about the 1970s filled up and material got squeezed out. Some of the most neglected material was part of this, so it is going to stay neglected. Let me just mention 'Lusus', by George MacBeth – some of his best work.

B.C. Leale (1930-2018) seems to have engaged intensively in poetry but did not publish a book until 1984, when two came out Leviathan and The Colours of Ancient Dreams. He published in many magazines  40 are credited in LeviathanA New and Selected Poems is said to be in preparation, but no actual books have appeared since 1984. I came across his name in a review by Peter Porter – I was going through all his reviews in the on-line archive of The Observer. Leale was part of The Group in the Sixties and Porter evidently knew him. I say this because Leale does not seem to crop up in any of the anthologies. (An exception is the Group anthology, in the Sixties.) Leale emphatically belongs with the terse, high-energy, and even violent poets. Leviathan is named for a poem about a whale which ends the book:

holy oil burning on the rim of night
baleful eye we would banish
down a forgotten hatchway
a cachalot engraved on paper

flailing white foundry rounding
on earth's emptiness
ivory nail scarring
the dark slate of the eternal.

The word appears again:

Hotels Royal, Imperial, Grand –
stranded leviathans drying out
at the city’s dead centre.

Furs, confections of feathers,
so gracefully taken,
jammed on hooks.
(‘Lost Worlds’)
The aesthetic is fairly obvious. The language is cut right down to allow primal and violent processes to emerge, and the main goal is to be kinetic. At page 49 we have two poems, one 20 words long and one 22 words long. Leale almost patented the one-word line. Ethics and psychological nuances are cut away – the objects or impact traces have to speak for themselves. This is not exactly unknown in the Sixties, but if Hughes, Harsent and MacBeth were so successful doing it, and coming out with ‘shots’ which had the impact of action cinema or advertisements, it was something the era wanted. Leale had realised the logic of the kinetic, startlingly so, and it is hard to see why he did not achieve a reputation. These poems have an instantaneous hit, even if that involves a touch of the perverse and the violent. They simply have a modern aesthetic. Take this account of a musician:

Goes out for a snack
or to write up his memoirs
or to crash the barriers of sound
in a jet that feathers down to Africa.
He hunts the last of
visible wildnotes in the life-mask
of Stravinsky or merely

finds a locked room
in which he's sitting
in Paris in London in New York:
bullet/bone shield/brain high-pitched shearing/dismembering.

Heifetz listens at a lager glass
to a pacific
whisper of foam.

(‘Visible Wildnotes’)
This reminds me of Jeremy Reed. The poem catches people in brief, shrill, instants; but that is not necessarily to delete their characters, rather their unavowed passions are caught as if by a light that cuts through flesh and cultural defences. The belief in the kinetic leads to the damage associated with high speed  a way of generating form. The passage a street of speed-/vibrated faces seems to encapsulate his view of the world – the special world visible when moving at speed. He had a photographer's eye but was more interested in motion than in a still moment.
Colours is a collection of surrealist poems – hard-hitting but somehow academic. I can't really explain their lack of impact, perhaps it is due to habituation on my part. Even the cover looks like dada graphics of the 1920s rather than graphics of today. The proposal to publish two books in one year involved differentiation, so this differs from Leviathan even if the poems in that book are closely related to Colours. It includes the poem "Fouquet’s”:

tweezerings of iced
volcanoes. Tumbrils whirl. Delicate
lit spindles. At Fouquet’s you replace your glass
excessively (a gramme of strength
gone from you). It’s charged with a pale deluge
of sipped grape. The imagination's Venice
crusted in snow.
The Piazza brimming with an unspilt light.
The sky’s gondola riding a harbour of stars.

You step into the street drilled by its
rough lexical strata.

Also, what seems to be a text found by cutting-up a Barbara Cartland novel:

The Duke walked through the shrubs holding his
big Balls and Receptions right on the edge of the sea.

Anoushka looked up at him, her eye no longer
propped against the side of the balcony.

Their kiss took a long time while the Duke
paid some of his tailor's bills

Under a glass sky (1975?)) is described by a bookseller as “concrete Poetry”. This would correlate, as most surrealist poets in the 70s surely did concrete work as well. But booksellers are not tied down by mere fact.
Porter said about Colours: "Smiles, cameras, glass, blood, murder, Paris and composers dominate this book. There are lots of good jokes but some fine seriousness as well." I am relieved that Porter also finds the surrealist poems academic (he says "quirky, old-fashioned look").
And about Leviathan: His ideal miniature would be a grenade and language for him is certainly booby-trapped. Porter quotes an entire poem, ‘Der Heiligenschein’:

The aura around his head on the dewy grass
the observer stooped down to & gingerly picked
wrought of strong sunlight & water
and put it into his briefcase
without a
spilt drop
an excess of virtue carried
through subways furtively
as if he had robbed heaven.

(The title means ‘halo’.)
Leale belongs to a moment of the immediate present which I associate with the halcyon period 1965-74. He seems uninterested in his own personality, certainly in his social position, uninterested by the past. The kinetic objects of his poems are speeding through the exit from their own past. For this reason it is difficult to wrap him in some kind of cultural nostalgia. I just don't understand why his poetry has disappeared from view.

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