Saturday, 4 January 2020

Patrick Anderson and endlessly Canadian writing

Problems of Adjustment: Patrick Anderson (1915-79)

The birth date of 1915 fits right into the middle of the generation who became New Romantic poets, born generally between 1910 and 1920. As you know, many of them also vocally ceased to be New Romantic Writers as the climate changed.

I never wrote about Anderson, which is now a source of guilt. My work on modern British poetry starts in 1960, and I don't think he wrote any significant poems after 1960. I tended to leave Commonwealth poets alone and he had spent much of his life in Canada (although he lived in England up to his early twenties, usually taken to be the most influenceable part of your life). I am looking at successive versions of Jim Keery’s Apocalypse. An Anthology, not yet published but sure to be a thing that changes the landscape of memory, and I have noticed that Anderson was in the earlier, 500-page, version but not in the clipped, 300-page version. It was this poem:

My Bird-Wrung Youth’

My bird-wrung youth began with the quick naked
voice in the morning, the crooked calling,
and closed in the quiet wave of the falling
wing, dropping down like an eyelid –
O syringing liquid
song on the bough of flight and at night, light failing,
the nested
kiss of the breasted

ones floating out to sleep in a cup of colours:
wren’s flit and dimple, the shadowy wing of the curlew
spent between stone and fern in the hollow,
the barn-raftered swallow and far at sea the rider
gull on the billow
all night, all night kept sleep till steeply
the pillow
threw morning cockcrow

up in a column of straw and blood. In childhood
days opened like that, whistled and winked away,
but now with a harsher cry birds bury
my stolen heart deep in the wild orchard,
and whether they prettily
play with the plucked bud here or marry
a cloud, I
am lost, am emptied

between two sizes of success. For, clocking
past ceiling and dream sailing, they drop down
to pick apart in a nimble and needed rain
my limbs in love with longing, yet till I long
for my twin in the sun
they rise, they almost form, to be born
with a song
in a seventh heaven!

And I alone in the ambivalence
of April’s green and evil see them still
colonizing the intricately small
or flashing off into a wishing distance –
their nearer syllables
peck through the webs of every loosening sense
and in their tall
flight’s my betrayal.

This omission is a moment of alarm and I want to say something about Anderson now. (Surinx is primarily a musical pipe, so syringing means piping.) Surely he was one of the good New Romantics and his evolution in the early Fifties is significant as a way out of a position which had become tired and needed to metamorphose. Take this stanza:

I remember the day when the world rolled over
and the mist of the blizzard was the outfit of the wave:
the sun was soft as blubber that day,
through blindman's buff of fathoms he blew his haze
and rolled his bulk, and summer was never
stronger than that, was never in sea or hay
a lovelier weather.

(‘Soft Blizzard’)
The yokings of words are continually surprising (cf. past ceiling and dream sailing), and this is the New Romantic element, where we can’t really discount either surrealism or metaphysical poetry as a source. They are surprising rather than paradoxical and anti-rational.

There is a memoir by Robert Druce which contains the key information, largely private or secret during the poet’s lifetime (in The Rhetoric of Canadian Writing). At Oxford he was president of the Conservative Association; he went to America in 1938, became a pacifist, married an American communist, moved to Montreal, where he edited the retrospectively vital magazine Preview. In around 1950, he moved again, to a job in Singapore (for two years). He then spent twenty years or so in England, retiring in 1973 to concentrate on writing.

I read a book (can’t now remember which one, it was probably by Brian Trehearne) which indicated that Anderson had been a significant part of a breakthrough generation in 1940s Canada, but had been written out of the historical record because he was gay and the chronicler or chroniclers felt that a poet had to be macho and dealt with the rugged adversities of untamed Nature. The report also suggested that he was torn between gay life and marriage, that he had written excellent poetry while struggling with marriage, but when he became consistently gay he became happy and lost the vital chemicals, of struggle, ambiguity, and so on, and ceased writing interesting poetry. The problem may also have been that the history was written by poets from a magazine which was a bitter rival of Preview and they felt themselves to have been overshadowed and out-gunned by Anderson and P.K. Page. No-one is going to record that fairly in their myth-making retrospect. He impressed me by writing a book which was a history or anthology of intense male friendship, evidently a gallery of wonderful gay relationships, and a predecessor of Higgins’ Queer Reader. This was Eros. An anthology of male friendship, 1961. This was about as openly gay as you could get in 1961. There was a copy in the local second hand bookshop (in Mansfield Road) but I failed to buy it, the contents looked a bit familiar to me. But, what do I know. I was impressed that someone in Nottingham at the end of the 1950s had been well-informed enough to buy such a book – aimed at a fairly specialised, although large, market. (It is possible that the 1961 edition was just “friendship” and a 1963 edition expanded this to “male friendship”.) There is a 1991 article (for ECW) by Robert K. Martin, “Sex and Politics in Wartime Canada: The Attack on Patrick Anderson”, which describes a 1943 anti-gay attack on Anderson in a rival magazine. A review comments “

The book I actually own is The Colour as Naked, 1953. I would like to ow The White Centre (1946) but it is a rare book and people ask high prices. Naked is really good. A description could involve saying that the poems are based on concrete scenes closely observed, but that they also want to vault over that into pure subjectivity, or freedom, and that the poet possibly regards that as winning. This double impulse allows him to renew his energies with each poem. Some asymmetrical couplings of words link him to the New Romantics, without that becoming his main thrust. Negatives are easier to define – the communist phase seems to have evaporated, he is neither using the devices of Left poetry nor expressing repentance and views on why “history isn’t as simple as that”. No more is he writing about the end of his first marriage or the start of his long-term relationship with another man. The pictures of ordinary people and crowds may be a continuation of Left themes, asserting the relationship between the poet and everybody else. There are two sestinas. This form played a symbolic role, during the 1950s, in asserting a living link between the academics teaching Eng Lit, and writing poems, and the literature they taught. It was visibly difficult and showed ease. It was even meritocratic. These poems show Anderson moving organically into a new era where political commitment was seen as simplification, and formalism as a way into the mysteries of language. (Discussion on this form in Edward Brunner’s Cold War Poetry.) He was good at everything, and it is almost unbelievable that he stopped soon after The Colour as Naked. I like this passage from a poem about the ‘Hand’:

Flag from a cradle, with a thumb to suck
whose wit transcends the ape, this pares and feels,
selects and holds
and is the wonder of habitual trick
to thrust and break the being out
for act and handshake, levers of a world.

This is so close to physical reality and yet so rich in ideas.
Comments have been made, by Trehearne for one, about the poet’s self dissolving and losing shape. This is happening in ‘Bird-Wrung Youth’, a poem initially about birds, where the poet (rather traditionally) becomes a bird and the bird is flying around, defying gravity. The poems are perhaps trying to reach this condition. But the poems in Naked are full of concrete details and mostly start with concrete scenes. The poet is perhaps like a camera moving across a scene full of people – this is apparently a Leftist programme although it is like the mobility of the bird. The poems are at least part-way documentaries. Perhaps the thing dissolving is the sound of the bird – sound has to dissolve and never was solid. And poems are made of sounds.
An email has arrived to clarify that: >>"syrinx" is also the vocal organ of birds, functionally similar to our vocal cords but quite different in operation. << So this word probably also contains "ringing" and "siren" and is an occluded echo of 'liquid'. If we imagine the present tense as “syrings” then the past tense is 'sywrung' and this is possibly audible in the title. So a syrinx is a thing that squirts twitters? O syringing liquid
song on the bough of flight and at night. Also, in the book it is immediately followed by a poem called 'The Strange Bird' which is almost certainly part of the same meaning-complex. This second poem is mystifying, full of dream imagery, and the most Barker-like of the poems in the book. It is the closest to utter freedom and also the most laden with fixated images from childhood and the past.In 'Bird-wrung Youth', lying in bed listening to birdsong has something to do with the idea of sexual freedom. The speaker's body image flutters, kicks, takes off into the skies. In the column of straw and blood, the straw is in the pillow and the column is an early morning erection, coinciding with cock-crow.

I do feel sad about his leaving Canada, and also that he went for 23 years without producing a volume of poems. But even poets have the right to a biography. He seems to have been very happy with his life partner, Orlando Gearing. There were some more poems in the mid-50s, after Colour as Naked. Anderson produced two different selections of his poems in 1976 and 1977 – A Visiting Distance and Return to Canada. Because of the literary climate, neither is reliable for his 1940s work, which to be honest is what really interests me. There does not seem to be a Collected. He never published a volume of poetry in Britain – most of his books seem to have come out from McClelland and Stewart, in Toronto.

There is a very good essay on Anderson by Patricia Whitney, available on the Internet. Whitney has drawn on Anderson’s Journal and on some letters from him and his wife to Pat Page (P.K. Page, as a poet), in a Canadian archive. The record shows that Anderson spent much of his time in Canada hanging out with the Labour Progressive Party, who were Moscow-line communists. The Canadian Communist Party were banned in 1940 under the War Measures Act, hence the new party. His so-called autobiography does refer to this but does not describe political enthusiasm, only the eccentricities of his fellow comrades. (One of his close friends is arrested in the flap after the defection of Igor Gouzenko, an event exploited to close down communist activities far beyond any espionage involvement.) A certain amount of subterfuge was involved in several aspects of Anderson’s position.

A seller’s blurb for First Steps in Greece reads An endearing travelogue of Greece and it's islands in the late 1950's before the advent of mass tourism. Made colourful by the characters he met and his wonderful style of writing, a wonderful read.” So you think it was all more ‘colourful’ before the advent of mass tourism, but you are reading thr working-class people to have holidays in the Mediterranean area. What had been a luxury for a luxury-living class became much more normal. During the rise of the package holiday, Anderson published three travel books. He abandoned literary poetry for rather informal and entertaining prose. This was part of class differences eroding. The wave of popularisation may actually connect to cultural Communism and to the simplicity demanded from communist writers. The travel genre is quite important for the cultural evolution of the 1950s; at one level it is made up of guide-books and deals with high culture, such as painting, architecture, the lives of great writers; at another level it connects to holidays and is consciously serene and cheerful.

I acquired his 1957 autobiography, Search Me. I wasn’t expecting much, but on examination this is a major work and a significant moment in the thin history of Fifties writing in Britain. The jacket describes also a radio play, A Case of Identity; it was broadcast on the Third Programme, which was only listened to by a few thousand intellectuals. Outside that enclave, the 1950s were not a good time for serious writing, while broadcasting and prose resembling broadcasting chatter were making all the running. Let us remember the films of the Rank Organisation, something which Younger Readers may not have heard of. They typified a certain phase of cheerful, unpretentious, anti-intellectual, ordinary but middle class, humour in the face of pretty ordinary adversity, which reliably satisfied a recurring wish for undemanding entertainment. Anderson published nine prose books in fifteen years. They must have done pretty well for the publishers to keep coming back. Certainly, they fit in at the higher end of the holiday reading market. Search Me could be a film with Donald Sinden as the hero. It makes me think of An Alligator Named Daisy or No Kidding (1960). I am musing on the Great Rampage section of Search Me as a light-hearted comedy starring Leslie Phillips and Geraldine McEwan. Britain became a different place when Rank stopped producing films. Search Me does tend to feature comic mishaps and larger than life eccentrics. It is genuinely unpredictable; thus, when you are thinking that he is having an easy ride on anecdotes, he says “But anecdotes have their suspect side; you framed and laughed at what you really wanted to be compelled by and enjoy.” The section on a ‘model village’ with provision for Maladjusted Children and a new hope for England, at Great Rampage, is comic but is also a forerunner of what ten years later would be called the counter-culture.

“You’ll only get an occasional whiff of the moral atmosphere...
“Which is?” I probed at once.
‘Oh well, love, or fraternity, the lost revolutionary virtue. And Merrie England. And bits of Martin Buber. And the wise darkness of the world, which I suppose would be close to Jung.’
On the strength of this I bought him another tomato juice. ‘With lemon’, he cautioned me. ‘Of course everyone has his own philosophy’ he went on. ‘It’s Schweitzer and Kathleen Ferrier when the teachers come, and FS Smythe and Sir John Hunt for the Scouts, and the weavers and potters are all for functionalism and the nature of the material, and the dancers relate themselves spontaneously to space. They did an Age of Anxiety ballet recently. Hefty village girls, carrying on a muscular flirtation with the Atom Bomb… Much criticised afterwards as insufficiently positive – it lacked organic context.’

(Smythe was a mountaineer and author of The Kangchenjunga Adventure, and Hunt was the leader of the successful Everest expedition of 1953.) The last third of the book is completely different, dealing with bisexuality in the shape of a Canadian painter who comes to live in Spain with his wife. It reads like a novel. One has to guess that the painter is really an avatar of Anderson (but maybe there were two people in Montreal whose marriages suffered from bisexual temptations). Key to Search Me is this lack of guilt, for example about the failure of a marriage, and the lack of assertion of a rigid identity, so that the speaker is always changing in changing situations. If the central theme of 20th C poetry was the assertion and recording of a character, Anderson was suspicious about Character and was moving towards the idea of personality as a process. Whereas both communism's view of History and romantic fiction's view of marriage see a final transition to a static and exalted state, Anderson sees both marriage and social life as a continuous series of adjustments; like someone seeing an object a thousand times and gradually grasping its real dimensions and shape. In the end, I felt that the theme of the book is that, once one has abolished guilt and obligation, a new version of 20th C life opens up, where the inability of social roles to fit the urgings of pleasure is abiding – not moving towards a resolution, but swept along on a shimmering tide of incidents. That is, it is reminiscent of Nigel Dennis’ Cards of Identity. Both books centre on the need for adjustment, but find that process mysterious and comic. They are at least amenable to the idea that both advertisements and magazines, and even films, may serve to adjust the consumer to society (and commodities to the consumer), and even that this is a long-term function of culture. Could this be the end of alienation?
I feel obliged to quote a poem from the book, as it is possibly otherwise unrecorded. This is “a description of my return to England in 1947”:

At evening the rocks, the fissures,
the slanted knife-shape like a gull tilting
and the cave becoming an arch and the arch crumbling
hold blue-white light over gravel,
startle like falling of plaster but do not fall:
westward the headlands veil and swell,
the mountain humps over the cooling beaches,
the cars start up, the picnic is dismantled,
a trifling litter swings and fills
with the flooding tide, the spine of the conger.

The dogfish egg floats in the darkness.

The dried-out tissue of the sea-pink trembles.

blesses the objects. Form can give
security. One hides in the attractive
sense of an island. But tonight
by the oil lamp in the parlour
or changing my shoes on the cold linoleum
by the light of a candle, running out the sand,
or turning into the sea-dark at the doorway,
vague, warm, the moth in the wind
damp on the privet and fuchsia,
the honeysuckle swing with a tendril
and the ivy clipped to the rock and the heather
wired to its peaty soil,
I shall be ashamed of alliteration
and the obvious delight. I shall be ashamed
of rootless sensuality that pumps
the blood-red flower and impacts the stone,
for the poem behind the poem is inconsolable.
I shall want to cry with my own voice:
‘I have come back. It is after ten years.
How does one learn to live?’ and the question,
hidden behind the question, once again,
will rise in its unconscionable boyhood
to be the gunman of another twilight.

(possibly running out on the sand?)
The realisation that one cannot compete with Anderson as a commentator on his own poems is modified by the fact that in Search Me he is describing poems later than The Colour as Naked, or ones he has not written yet. He is so creative that the ideas of a few years before hardly crop up in this prose book.
I also feel that the sheer flow of ideas could not have been contained in poems, and this is why he moved into the less constrained, or organised, medium of prose. I think the scene is less Anderson as someone in internal exile, hiding behind entertainment, than someone gregarious and amusing who was genuinely like the people who wrote and staged Rank films, who knew all the reasons for not being abstract and demanding. So I don’t see Anderson's career as tragic.

PS. genuinely obscure Anderson fact. In 1948, a poem of his was published in Poetry Quarterly but attributed to GS Fraser, because Wrey Gardiner had mixed the sheets up.
PPS An interested scholar (JEK) has advised that the poem was attributed to WS Graham - Wrey Gardiner's correction note itself contained an error. ‘he dies daily writing his doom’s diary/ while body’s queer career is his carrier/ in time across a plain of life and paper’  a touch of Graham there, I guess.
There are three vital essays on Anderson in ECW (originally Essays in Canadian Writing but after expansion Extremely Canadian Writing or possibly Endlessly Canadian Writing), volumes for 1991 and 1997, which really get with the homophobia and the psychological blocks of the time.
JEK has also pointed out how similar Anderson's poetry is to P.K.Page. A poem like the "return" one sounds as if he had been talking to painters a lot, probably his wife and Canadian painters she hung out with. That might link to writing poems about the body, which is part of the link to Page. cf.:

... and if you became lost, say, on the lawn,
unable to distinguish left from right
and that strange longitude that divides the body
sharply in half – that line that separates
so that one hand could never be the other –
dissolved and both your hands were one,
then in the garden though birds
and on the ground
flowers wrote their signatures in coloured ink –
would you call help like a woman assaulted,

cry to be found?

- which is Page but sounds like a series of Anderson passages, in prose or verse (see the poem about the Hand, quoted above).

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