Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Nothing is being suppressed: what I left out

A Rewrite in October 2019.
This is about a newly finished book, ‘Nothing is being suppressed’.
I was giving a last re-read to the finished text and saw a wordcount which said “129000 words”. I panicked at this, so I checked out the text and spotted two chapters I could take out. Felt very satisfied. Another check showed that this was an old count, and I only had 114,000 words now. Aha! This gave me the opportunity to add new material. Sad to say, this was my greatest wish, even if the text had been closed off 2 ½ years earlier. This piece is a description of the process by which I discarded various promising possibilities and chose two themes to write the last 3000 words about.
Possibilities. There was no section on Scottish and Welsh poetry. I could add new texts, for example by Jeremy Hooker or Anthony Thwaite. I could add an essay on MacBeth’s ‘Lusus’, an amazing long poem which the world has forgotten about.
I looked at ‘Deuoliaethau’, a 1976 volume by Bryan Martin Davies. The name means ‘dualities’ and I was taken with the idea of a Welsh poet exploring ambiguity and uncertainty, when most Welsh poets are saying “more tautology! Now!!”. But in investigation (I had a copy of his collected which I had bought very cheap, stranded in a shop in England), I couldn’t see what the qualities were. An essay in a book I had suggested that the two possibilities were two different regions of Wales, both of which featured in the poems. This wasn’t very convincing as a departure from topography and local patriotism. The poems did not seem strong to me, he had jettisoned the traditional verse structure but what he then developed wasn’t intense or dynamic. So I gave up. In the foreword to his Collected, Davies mentions that he was working in a school literally on Offa’s Dike, the traditional dividing line between Wales and England (originally, Mercia) when he was writing the poems. There is a long sequence called ’Y Clawdd’, the Dike, in the book. So maybe the duality is just between Wales and England – without oscillation or effects of transition. The presupposition of poetry in Welsh is that ‘Welsh’ and ’English’ are irrevocably separate categories, and that if you shift to speaking English it is an irreversible degradation. Softening of that border is not what they wish for at all. Davies doesn’t stand on the Dike and think “I could go in either direction”. The sequence accepts nationalist presuppositions and lyrically expands on them, without questioning them. It doesn’t involve political thinking, or what I would call that.

I wanted to write about Anthony Barnett, since I had recently (well, five years ago) grasped what his poetry was really about and my first attempt on it wasn’t very perceptive. On reflection, the key is egocentricity, the poems are just about Anthony and his love life. He is a musician, the idea of performance, of being the focus of attention, is key to his idea of lyric poetry. He has no interest in philosophy, or in abstract ideas generally. The poems show you what he felt and the landscapes etc. he perceived. I like the poems a lot but I didn’t have anything compelling to say about them. Once you identify with the character who is speaking them, they are easy to understand.
The edge of a book about a whole era can’t be tidy, things are bound to flow over the edge and if you pursue them you will just find more and more things that demand to be described. I am not going to resist anyone who wants to argue about the things I didn’t include, but I also don’t feel inspired to expand the book by another 20,000 words. This sounds banal, but the cover price is something you always have to bear in mind, the book sells itself more easily if it is cheaper.
I thought about a chapter about ‘Soliloquies of a chalk giant’ (Jeremy Hooker) and a line of topographical poetry which is related to it, perhaps in contrast to other series of topographical poems which are quite distinct from it, a fertile and confusing area. I hadn't read Chalk Giant -

 A reindeer’s bone carved
In the reindeer’s likeness.

Spindle whorl
A chalk phallus
A lump of chalk
With heavy curves bearing
The image of woman.

A necklace with blue beads of Egyptian faience,
black ones of Kimmeridge shale.
Cannon ball
A phallus carved in the church wall
A statuette of the Virgin.
(‘Found Objects’)

The syntax is retarded but the poetry is powerful nonetheless.
 I never worked out a reason for not writing this chapter– it just didn’t seize my attention enough until after I had finished the pieces I actually used. So, really important but I hadn't detected a way of writing about it. I think the problem was how to express the matrix where a dozen poets had drawn on the same generative ideas. This attenuates the focus on the individual poet, but really that focus is the exciting thing.
I have a photocopy of ‘Lusus’ but when I searched I couldn’t find it. This is why I didn’t write a short essay about ‘Lusus’.
Writing more about the mainstream seemed like a good idea, but somehow I couldn’t field the right texts, or ones which I hadn’t written about. A chapter on Peter Porter would have been beneficial, after all he published four volumes during the decade, but that asked for more space or energy than I had actually got. An idea didn’t stalk me. It’s just an outstanding obligation. Similarly with The New Divan, I had looked at this but realised it was impossible to paraphrase. I would certainly have liked to write about it at length, and thought about this when Ira mentioned it in an email, but again it is too complex and not to be taken on as an after-thought. There is a single Thwaite poem about two flint artefacts which I had an idea for writing about, somehow this didn’t get into the mix either. (‘Points’, 1973; one Japanese arrow-head, one obsidian and from Libya. Not flints, OK, I admit that.) Thwaite published three absolutely brilliant books during the Seventies, he is certainly a candidate for representing mainstream poetry as a mature art-form. The problem as having written about Thwaite in two other books – you have to accept success, move on, and not just go on making the same attractive point.
I thought of writing a chapter on being Left. This wasn’t worked out in detail, but it would have answered questions like, why does someone think that writing poetry which is obscure and puzzling and uncooperative is going to weaken the political system, by withholding consent. A couple of dozen things like that. I didn’t start on this, because it would have demanded space which I no longer had available.
I thought about writing about Jackowska at greater length. She is such a fascinating poet, but I had written 1000 words about Manda, and my guess was that that was enough, the vital point had been made and any further extension would weaken the forward momentum.
I wanted to write about From Alphabet to Logos (by John Powell Ward) but I didn’t have a concept of how to write about it and the opportunity just slipped by. This is probably the most important poetry, for the whole 40-year period, which I didn’t write about.
In the course of research for the book I met Paul Matthews, in Dorset. Paul promised to send me a copy of his 1979 pamphlet on poetics, but I knew he wouldn’t. This wasn’t fruitful – you have someone who was there in the Seventies, but everything that has happened since has piled on top of it and the life of 1972 just isn’t there for him, not without a huge de-compilation process. That sums up what I had to do with the project, really. The idea that in 2019 you can get back to 1972 is almost crazy, but I didn’t find it all that hard, it comes from being a historian and always being preoccupied with side-slipping into the past. And this is the most recoverable past. The prints are there even if the people have changed. (I quote the pamphlet in my book.)
I kept finding new texts in the research but the only ones I found room for were ones I knew about before even starting. A frustrating situation and the only exception I can think of is The House That Manda Built, which just swept me away.
The new themes I actually wrote about were the world of little magazines, since that had got pushed aside somehow while I was talking about books the entire time, and about the relationship between radical politics, lifestyle, and poetry. The later was a condensed version of a scrapped chapter which was originally based on Jonathan Raban’s Soft City. I wanted to answer the question of why so much poetry written by left-wing individuals did not seem to be at all political, and how social or psychological ideals could be expressed in the fabric of poetry, rather than stuck out on the side of it as explicit and rational statements. I had rather ducked that question. A short comment on it is helpful even if it leaves lots of room for people to attack it. So I salvaged some sections of the two chapters I had just deleted, and with the two new passages that got me back to 120,000 words, and I could call it a day.
Two comments. First, this set does not describe ideas which I had had during the course of composition, but not exploited. It just describes ideas I toyed with during the last week. Secondly, the selection seems to have been a kind of “neural Darwinism” – I used the ideas which involved the least effort, or which completed first. My unconscious worked on the ideas and spat out semi-finished lengths of prose, which I wrote down as finished products. I don’t know why the unconscious found patterns more quickly in some areas than others. I always seem to be catching up.

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