Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Reconciliation? two - and naval battles

Reconciliation? and naval battles. Fights for the Flag

(this follows up a post about poetry which reaches a committed audience and poetry which might reach a previously unpersuaded audience)

I have been thinking about poetry disappearing into the catacombs, high on its own mythology, and wondering about a modernised landscape in which the grand oppositions of the 1950s, 1970s, 1990s, even 2007, disappear and poetry reaches a slightly wider audience. I was musing about this at Stourpaine. I was talking about the absence of patriotic poetry and saying that an anthology titled “100 poems about killing foreigners” would go down well in the UKIP market. At this point someone interrupted to say that this was grossly unfair to UKIP supporters. I didn’t halt, and later he disappeared and didn’t return for the rest of the weekend. I regretted this, since what I was getting at was a “liberal bubble” which most people found off-putting, and here I had created greater homogeneity by driving someone away.

The Observer for 15 December 2019 reports that Labour lost in north-east England because so many people there have military associations and Corbyn was seen as not being a proper patriot, i.e. not retrospectively wanting to kill all the people who got killed in any of a hundred national (national?) wars. I don’t think poetry can deliver that feeling, i.e. “collective warmth brought about by killing foreigners together”. I was looking at old copies of 2nd Aeon (the greatest magazine, probably) and Peter Finch covers, at some point around 1973, a series produced by Eric Ratcliffe, the guy who edited Ore for fifty years (?) and was interested in the national past. “a new series of booklets entitled ‘torches of the island’ which are selected ‘primarily for their sense of country’, this one deals with horatio nelson’s victory at the battle of the river nile,1798. Traditional in style of course.” So, fights for the flag. This doesn’t mean anything, Finch didn’t even bother to attack it, but it does allow me to point to an unconscious and negative rule: You can’t write patriotic, narrative, poetry in which killing foreigners is the emotional climax. Yes, we do have rules, here and there. Late twentieth century poetry evolved inside the area left open when all the negative rules have been mapped and the boundaries have been drawn.

The reason I was thinking about “naval battles” was an article by Norman Jope in Tears in the Fence (TITF issue 67, winter/spring 2018) where he described someone appointed as “town poet of Plymouth”, to the amazement of the Plymouth poetry scene, who wrote patriotic naval poems and then also wrote anti-immigrant poems as part of the same cultural campaign. It occurred to me that, if you wiped out the “liberal elite”, as in the terms of reference of the populist Right, the result would be violent patriotic poems, “fights for the flag”. 
Jope quotes part of a poem by this guy, whose name is Sullivan:

Now comes the hour. Where comes the man
to free the blade its sheath;
and raise again quick ‘Albion’,
lay bare its razor teeth?
To set Britannia’s heart arace,
and gorge those veins with flame;
cleave free her ill forged foreign chains,
this sceptred isle reclaim.

Jope goes on to comment: “So is the ‘man’ Nigel Farage? Or maybe Arron Banks? Or perhaps even Sullivan himself in fantasy form? Whoever it was meant to be, 'Albion' came across to us as a xenophobic nativist piece – but one which had been published in a well-respected provincial newspaper by a Council-appointed Laureate.”

Jope reports a protest letter (to that local newspaper) which received a response, from other populist poets, to the effect that literary poetry is incomprehensible and un-democratic. This does sound a lot like UKIP attacks on metropolitan elites (in Brussels and Westminster). The message (sorry to be banal) is that, just as the political class do not deserve to run politics, so the literary elite have forfeited the right to decide who gets published, to establish interpretations of texts, to agree with each other about good taste and bad. This stricture includes the underground, some members of whom have made parallel attacks on the more visible sector of taste over the last half-century or so. It looks as if a UKIP-style assault is unlikely to take culture over but does reveal deep reefs of common values underneath different parts of the learned literary world.

The naval thing can be traced back to a stage where poems about naval battles were central and fashionable. The centrality of naval poetry lasted from about 1895 to 1920, and its start is connected with the naval rivalry between England and Germany, which was psychologically connected with a fear about loss of trade and the Empire. The famous poets were Kipling, Newbolt, and Noyes. Masefield wrote “Saltwater Ballads” but this was about the merchant navy and did not share the same politics. Bridges tried to write an epic poem about Trafalgar, but could not bring it together. There was a succeeding stage of cultural hangover after an overdose of WWI propaganda, where people (many of them) became disillusioned with collective violence and the arts moved as far as possible away from all that. This was in the 1920s, and you could say it was the younger brothers of people who had been killed in the War. Of the first three poets, two have been largely written out of history, and Kipling (“The Seven Seas”) has become a minority taste even though critics widely acknowledge his greatness. The story involves not just the absence of new poets enrolling in the patriotic camp, but also large changes of course by poets like Newbolt and Noyes. The anti-war attitude is still in force. It is something which has been transmitted from generation to generation, or which each generation has discovered and acquired.

Looking at the “naval battles” thing suggests that the whole modern scene has major features in common. The oppositions separate people only within a realm which is already small and (otherwise) shared. This suggests that you can write history in which you describe what people shared, and apply values which they could share, at least potentially. Unstitching obsolete oppositions is the key to writing a stable history of modern British poetry. That may not actually be possible, if the mutual detestation is scored right into the fabric of the poetry, but clearly pulling the camera back and taking in more of the landscape is the way towards a history which is not partial and divisive.

Just to reiterate, naval poetry is not coming back. That is a delusion. 

The other feature of the xenophobic poem quoted was its use of archaic vocabulary. So "quick" meant "living" 400 years ago, but now no longer does. Interestingly, the collective decision to scrap the permission to use archaic words also dates to the 1920s. That is a simplification. Robert Bridges said "we'll get 'em all back", about these words (can't remember the date, sometime in the 1920s). The Georgians probably made the major impact in insisting on 20th century vocabulary, but Bridges' 'Testament of Beauty' (1929) was a huge best-seller and is all in a sort of timeless historicist diction. So this is another collective rule: don't use archaic words. But the anti-elite challenge is precisely to the prerogative of those in charge to enact rules. You know what is ridiculous and what is acceptable because you are an insider. The challengers might abolish all poetic rules enacted in the past hundred years  like repealing EU-derived legislation. The protest might lead to defining bad poetry, all bad poetry, as good. ("get em all back" may be Pound's paraphrase of Bridges rather than a direct quote. But just check a page of 'Testament' to confirm the litter of archaisms.) 
Man's Reason is in such deep insolvency to sense,
that tho' she guide his highest flight heav'nward, and teach him
dignity morals manners and human comfort,
she can delicatly and dangerously bedizen
the rioting joys that fringe the sad pathways of Hell.
Not without alliance of the animal senses
hath she any miracle: Lov'st thou in the blithe hour
of April dawns -- nay marvelest thou not -- 
to hear the ravishing music that the small birdes make
in garden or woodland, rapturously heralding
the break of day; 

Bridges thought he was proving Darwin wrong by his whitterings about bird-song. That anti-modern agenda has never really conceded its faults.

To sum up. The proposal is that, just as Farage wanted to repeal all legislation deriving from Brussels, since 1973, so someone could propose repealing all judgements of taste made since 1923, or 1945. The people who didn't read modern poetry, all through that time, would use this "silent exclusion" as a basis for disqualifying the actual literary elite from having any say about culture. Feelings of inferiority would take over the institutions and public utterance. Everything legitimated would be-delegitimated.
This is something to imagine... but all the details are missing. It is reasonable to say that Kipling, Noyes and Newbolt would be the core of a revisionist anthology for schools. Otherwise, the map is blank. Perhaps there is a line of followers of Bridges which has been submerged all this time. It is worth asking how the "shared past" is laid down  as exposed in anthologies and so on. It expresses a collective feeling which personally I have always been glad to be part of.

No comments:

Post a Comment