Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Nothing is Being Suppressed

Nothing is Being Suppressed
I am finishing (September 2017) a book on the poetry of the 70s. We shall see if this ever reaches publication. At the moment, it is 140,000 words long, so something has to go. This is not my favourite moment, in fact I would rather write a lot more. Getting back into the horizon of 1975 took a lot of effort, but having got there I feel I can understand everything about the moment and can shed light on anything.
The story of the decade is one of disillusion. But, if you don't capture what those illusions were, you haven't got anything. This is the key to the book.
The nucleus was long poems. These seemed to sum up the breakout into new territory, the unique moment of the time. I kept delving into books of the time (at the Poetry Library) and eventually got up to 95 long poems. Shit! That is just too many. I have written detailed analyses of 32 of them but would be happy to write about the other 63. I think the original work on Long Poems of the 1970s was written in 2002 – it was only about six poems at that point. It was a chapter n 'Silent Rules' which I eventually deleted. 
The heading here is 'nothing is being suppressed’ but the title up until 2018 was 'breach and exit’.
‘Nothing is being suppressed” – Doomwatch 2:10, said by Dr Spencer Quist to Dr Fay Chantry. Episode, “The Human Time Bomb”. The team are advising on a new pattern of building high-rises and entire estates. Fay believes there is some hideous problem, but Quist says there is no problem, the paranoia is due to insecurity because people don’t know each other and there is no reassuring social life. Her own observations are invalid because while living on the estate she is suffering from anxiety and hyper-alertness. Her hypothesis of a conspiracy between Council and builders is wrong, nothing is being covered up. This is quite an unusual denouement for a 70s TV drama. As often happened, Doomwatch was too advanced in ideas for satisfying drama. The idea that belief in conspiracy theories might be connected to a loss of communal norms and in general to sociological problems is very interesting. The idea that social problems were due to bad town planning linked to illicit connections between property developers and government officials is part of the mythology of the time and is the sort of narrative people wanted to be told. If it isn’t the buildings which make people behave badly, there must be some other reason. The actress who plays Fay Chantry wrote to the producers saying “listen, you need a female scientist front and centre” and they thought about it and then gave her a leading role. The programme is staggeringly sexist, but the arrival of Dr Chantry provides a breach which says a great deal about the time. People were losing belief in the rules.
For bizarre reasons, the civil service pension fund claims it takes them six months to work out your pension, if you don’t quit at the standard time, aged 66. So being 60 I had to give six months’ notice. I am planning a new project but felt that I couldn’t start something new while also doing a 9 to 5 job. So, I have been writing this book since about September 2016 while waiting for my exit date to come up. Invoking Article 60. Maybe writing an eighth book about the same area I have just written seven books about might be a wrong decision, but it was organic. Anyway, there is just too much material and I have utterly run out of space.

Having finished the thing, I can see that it doesn’t mention the schools of Cambridge and London. Too bad. You can talk about the texts without spending thousands of words on something external to them. It’s not just that those stories have been told. It’s also that there are propaganda visions of the story and these are designed to exclude other people from view. If you want to keep those people on-camera, you would have to unwrap why the propaganda is territorialising and self-centred. This is not interesting enough to give up pages to. I could always analyse 34 long poems rather than 32.
I left out the brouhaha at the Poetry Society, too. It was a struggle over control of one magazine– who cares, really. Only processes which affect the market, the fluctuating population of many thousand people who buy modern poetry, are really history – and this wasn’t such a process. I didn’t want to stage armed encounters either between conservatives and modernists, or London and Lancashire, or Mods and Rockers, or anything else. This is partly due to boredom - I wrote about the 1976-7 ding-dong at the Poetry Society in The Council of Heresy and in a review for shearsman magazine. No need to repeat this material – other stories are more interesting to recite. It is hard to explain how I could come back to this period after writing so many books about the longer period (1960-97), but poetry does not run out easily, and my situation is like a DJ who does a radio programme every week and who is not running out of material after 25 years. If you want to know more about the Seventies poets, there is endless material in my other books. I have made a rule not to repeat anything.
At a certain point into the book (March 2017), I got an alarming system message and reformatted my hard disk. I didn’t understand the message properly and thought it was a roll-back rather than a journey to blank. Several months of work disappeared at that moment. This wasn’t as bad as it sounds, I had printouts to consult and much of the stuff related to books which had already been published, in the interim. I had migrated PC a few months earlier so anything pre-2017 was on the old PC and could be migrated again. This did alter the concept for the 70s book. The older design was too complex to realise and a change to a simpler design was inevitable. The crash just made me think things through rigorously. In fact, I had memories of lost chapters which I didn’t re-create on paper because the design was changing and there was too much to do. After I had finished the reconstruction, I found a print-out of another chapter which I had forgotten writing.
This work had some kind of start in about 2005 (maybe) in conversations with Charles Bainbridge. Charles was very keen on the Seventies being when everything was great, artistically, although things went wrong subsequently as the political transformation project faded away and left poetry as a vehicle with no freight. I think he and Simon Smith also had conversations about the lack of great works after 1980, this kept on coming up. At that point Charles was going to write the book. I thought about a revisionist anthology and listed the poets I would include. So, a long time had to pass in which Charles did not start writing the book. For me it was a symbol of happiness. Maybe I was depressed, anyway I thought of it as a merely pleasurable experience. Writing it was to make me happy. It didn’t wholly do that – the poetry itself was too pessimistic and the need to deal with the people who said no to the new poetry, the staff of the poetry business, was too pressing.  I don’t know what happened to the revisionist anthologies (one for each of about six decades!), I just didn’t think I had the commercial presence, and I still don’t. This is the first book specifically, or narrowly, about the Seventies. I would love to read Charles’ book if it ever happens. Having written 120,000 words I could easily write another 120,000. Really, everything happened in that decade.
Charles was really helpful,and detailed discussions with Harry Gilonis and Kevin Nolan also helped. 
 Around 2012 (?), Luke Roberts told me that he and associates (?) had looked at the 70s and the poet they came up with was Paul Green (‘Glass Cage of Cytheria’, 1977). I was amazed. Obviously I knew who he was (he anthologised me in ‘Ten British poets’, 1993). I got interested, so I contacted Jim Keery and he corresponded with Green and came up with a whole interpretative article of vast scope, which was completed during 2013 and came out in Angel Exhaust in 2015. This followed me reading Paul Brown intensively after Reality Studios came up with a volume covering his work up to 1991 (A Cabin In the Mountains, 2012). This also followed me reviewing Paul Evans, and including him in our special issue on the Welsh Underground. The whole episode convinced me that the ‘70s recovery project had completed. The project really began in the 70s, when I was trying to find out what the hell was going on – I read Nuttall’s communiqués in the Guardian in 1979 and 1980. Their polarised obscurity was just part of a landscape I found unreadable. But gradually I tracked down the lost poets, strongly assisted by other fans like Harry Gilonis. The total number of people involved must run into dozens. In 2016 (?) I attended a Grace Lake day at which Luke gave a talk on Grace. I must admit I am not certain I have any Lake poems from the 70s, although at least one person (Verity Sprott) has seen a fugitive 1976 book. Also, she features in Raban’s Soft City, appearing on TV (in 1974?) after being convicted in a bombs conspiracy trial. Conclusion: photogenic but a few coupons short of a toaster. So she may have written effective poems in the 70s – who knows. So the Seventies book may have followed this moment of conviction and conclusion. Actually the basis for thinking “we’ve completed now!” was pretty weak, it was just a subjective feeling.
Why doesn’t the design support the proposals I made in the ‘Out of Dissent’ review in 1997? Bush’s book was inconsistent because it brought social conclusions on stage in dead form but ignored the wider issues of sociology. I just can’t follow through on this – the central rule is I wanted to describe texts rather than develop deeper yet impersonal patterns. I am not writing structuralist history. I am not enthused by the attribution of everything in history to heroic individuals. However, there is not room in ‘Breach and Exit' to get into the links between sociology and cultural creativity.
A story, possibly fictional, about the band King Crimson circa 1971 has the bassist saying to the drummer “Look Andy, this is the groove and all he’s done is remove the groove. You’ve got to keep the groove in your head and play a load of bollocks instead”. (Mojo, issue 291, February 2018, p.102) Mojo suggests that this may be why bassist Gordon Haskell’s tenure at the band was so short. (He is on some tracks on the album Lizard.) The composer who wanted KC to leave rhythmic swing, dance music, and African-American influences behind was Robert Fripp. The image of the rhythm section recording the framework of the music while being uncertain what the framework was says a great deal about the Seventies. People of that generation (born after 1945, roughly) were actively trying to live a revolutionary life while finding it much more natural to react in a traditional way. Poets too were trying to hear a music of the future while their brains stubbornly fed out lines that could have been published in the Kenyon Review in 1955. Some poems of the period sound as if the composer had failed to explain to the musicians what the idea of the piece was.
In You Again, a book of interviews and fanmail which Bloodaxe put out for Ken Smith, Smith says at p.131 and p.147 that the hero of Fox Running fakes his own death and takes over the civic identity of someone else, his double, whom he sees on a train (and who is killed). This would be the climax of the poem, the solution to Fox’s identity crisis. But this plot development is not there in the text. Smith failed to write it. His command of language did not allow him to get the story down on paper. Smith achieved a certain density of language by omitting explanations or abstractions. This was a big feature of his poetry. But this rule pushed necessary material out of the poems.It is possible that the interview material needs to be included as integral parts of the poems, where his intention was not realised.
There may be a wider problem in the Seventies, that poets were creating much larger compositions with complex set-ups of characters and rules. The discord of the time meant that these were strikingly original, and traditional stories and characters were not useful any more. But poets wanted to cling on to the ideal of “poetic language” and so found it hard to write explanatory passages. Quite a few of the long poems of the time need extra information to make them clear. This is a sign of how ambitious they were, but also of inhibitions about the boundaries of poetry. You go beyond the boundaries but the language doesn’t go with you. Peter Porter points out, several times, where he doesn’t understand the poems he is reviewing – information “wantonly” left out.
I wrote about "Long Black Veil" and "Local Movement" but struck those passages from the book because, after lots of work, I just didn't find the poetry was important enough.
It is June 2019 and I still haven’t sent the script off for submission to a publisher. I am tinkering with individual sentences. I did discover things during the research for the book, but, with slight exceptions, there wasn’t enough room to write about them. There were some good poems in a 1975 magazine issue of “women’s poetry” edited by Valerie Sinason, and I am wondering if any of those poets went on to produce significant books or if the arrival of an uncritical audience and of preset rules for feminist poems just caused their work to flatten out. In 1975 that was a whole new world and the first poems from it were very exciting. Other work I encountered was by BC Leale, Philip Pacey, Jeremy Hooker, and, notably, Lusus by George MacBeth, an extraordinary long poem not included in his Collected and liable to slip out of memory. I did manage to put some notes on these writers on this blog. (Other work I developed an understanding of was by Ian Patterson, Keith Jafrate, and George Szirtes – really, very good. I am just embarrassed I didn't get with it before.) I plan to release on the Internet some of the material I deleted from the book. If you look at the posts here during 2019, and part of 2018, you will find notes on Leale, Mottram, Pacey, Jack Beeching, Hooker, John Smith, John Heath-Stubbs, Szirtes. For the essay on ‘Local Movement’, see post for April 2018. This was a lot of work but I took it out because in the end I didn’t think the poetry was good enough. I did the homework to get from incomprehension to the ability to write a commentary, but some work doesn’t yield returns. LM is just too obscure, it is like an index to a poem rather than a poem. I didn’t even read ‘Elegies’, which was written in the Seventies although collected in 1981. The point of travelling back to the Seventies is to find the good poetry. ‘Elegies’ is something like 100 A4 pages of high-powered poetry. Everything is in there. But while Eric knew all the source texts, he couldn’t capture and sequence the images effectively. Last week, someone was talking to me about Eric disliking women – I can't even remember who it was. Anyway, if he only included 1 female poet out of 46 in two different statements on the "British Poetry Revival", this may not be simply because "women disliked innovation as possibly exposing them to ridicule and wanted to write plain propaganda poems which won the fight", but also because he didn't react, emotionally/aesthetically, to women poets. There is a note by John Matthias on his "23 British Poets" anthology (1970), which Eric got his start from, that they were all male (sic), but he wishes he had included Elaine Feinstein (Eric did include her, actually) but he couldn't find anyone else. (essay in Reading Old Friends, 1992). Clearly, good women poets VISIBLE in 1974 were very few in number. As I have described the rise of feminist poetry, in the Seventies, in two other books, I am not having yet another go in this volume. Matthias also says The most significant development in the 1970s, however, was probably the emergence of PN Review and Carcanet, both edited from Manchester by Michael Schmidt.”

In issues of PN Review in the late Seventies, there is a series of essays on writers associated with Fascism. This is bizarre, because the intention is not to promote fascism. It is more an attempt to deal with guilt about being on the Right in an era when the cultural climate is Left, to soothe the humiliation, but in doing that acknowledging that the feelings of humiliation exist. While there is some value in discussing Gottfried Benn, for example, who did write some great poetry, the choice to take this passage through humiliation is strange and significant. There is an unacknowledged “cluster of feeling” which belongs to not very intellectual, not very innovative English poets or critics, where they look at the literary paths blazed by risk-takers and know that their talent wasn’t enough and that they were the less attractive group. This is quite different from being self-confidently against modernity. It is worth a chapter, but it involves feelings which were never voiced, so the chapter can’t really be written.There is some truth in the idea that everyone over thirty was being left behind. The centrality of arguments that "you are ignoring me!" goes back to the 70s, was tedious even then.

In 1971, to reiterate, you had cultural critics who were willing to read new poetry from all parts of the spectrum. By 1980, you seem to have a vow by the “alternatives” that they will never read any mainstream poetry, and a vow by anyone who wants employment in the mainstream never to read any alternative poetry, and to claim insistently that it does not exist. There is no fact which is accepted as true by both sides. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this shows hostility and insecurity, and that people are afraid to read kinds of poetry that are culturally hostile to someone like them. This behaviour is deeply unappealing and need not be part of the cultural lexicon. Part of the motive for writing about the Seventies now is to get back to 1971 and give a wide-spectrum view of the decade which no-one was willing to give in 1980.<<
Why would I think that such a book can now be read? I am thinking that we can claim that the oppositions which drove Seventies poetry came to an end during the Nineties. This is convenient but there is something to it – a flood of new poets arrived during a few years of “boom” then, and the old “front lines” seemed old and incomprehensible to them. This is responding to an email from Jamie MacKendrick saying that the drama of the Seventies seemed like old hat now (and had done for twenty years). The picture is clearer if you treat the set-up of 1995 as being new and undamaged by old grievances. However, I don’t see 1979 as a break-point – national politics changed, but I think everyone involved in Alternative poetry saw the election of Thatcher as an error, and thought their role was to go right on pursuing their long-term cultural goals, and not to throw in their hands. But depolarisation happened gradually, a little every day, as probably it must. Young rebels became middle-aged. Old reactionaries died or mutated into hideous plants. A new story began.

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