Friday, 27 March 2020

Morris Cox

Morris Cox

Received emails from Kevin Nolan and J.E. Keery about a totally neglected poet, Morris Cox (1903-98). Cox was mainly a visual artist, a printmaker I believe, and lived in Stratford (East 15). Alan Tucker’s well-informed obituary for The Independent remarks that he went to West Ham Art School in 1916.  There was a book about his prints and his work as a printer in 1991: Gogmagog: Morris Cox and the Gogmagog Press. Roderick Cave commented “Morris Cox has been perhaps the most important, and certainly the most original private printer in Britain in the past forty years […]” (date – 1991).The poems included in this book were not then included in the Flashpoint retrospective.
The latest attributed date for a poem in Whirligig is 1945. This is from a 1940 poem about Ancient Egypt: At the foot of the mountain and getting power over the legs, walking with the legs and coming forth upon earth, on a staircase leading up to the roof with the feet tied together, changing into a lotus, changing into a phoenix, changing into a heron, changing into a serpent, changing into a crocodile, changing into the god who giveth light and not dying a second time: O golden hawk with human head! O man come back to see his home!

A whirligig is a child’s toy, a stick with a loose head which goes round in the wind. Toys are folk art. Secondarily, it means a fairground merry-go-round. That is also folk art. (The 'gig’ bit is because there was a carriage called a gig with very large wheels, rotation was very striking.) The cover design for the book, by Cox, is very beautiful. It shows what I think are whirligig heads, detached from their sticks and flying away. They look like flowers and the picture is mainly plant
motifs. The lettering looks like the curved upper register, or fascia, of a merry-go-round, where the blazon goes, so “PIRELLI’S PRANCERS’ or whatever. This is from a 1967 poem, in the form of a Mummers’ Play:

 Below, tree-rods, thick budded, beaded, 
              Annie’s breasts and all 
         dot their shadowed undershed, 
              but Annie’s best of all. 

         Coddy seedlings sud and fidget, 
              Annie’s hair and all 
         blade their biddings, drive their blood, 
              but Annie’s best of all. 

(I guess ‘coddy’ refers to the codling moth, Cydona pomonella.) The 1958 British Council pamphlet on ‘Poetry To-day’ praises Cox and says “He throws words at the reader as if the reader were a coconut-shy.” (Geoffrey Moore wrote that) On page 59, he comes in between Causley and Christopher Logue, both of them interested in the language of folk song (Logue gave this up a few years later). Cox was in love with folk song, and his total declining of any moment of speaking as a 20th C human being who knows 20th C words is puzzling but surely raises the key question about his style. It gives the folk poems a certain irreducible consistency, but leaves the distance between us and the poems empty and mysterious. A brief dip into the dating of styles would tell us that in the 1960s pop music almost swept poetry away. In the 1950s, there was a Folk Boom in which Southern blues played a small part, leading up to a torrent of electrified blues in the guise of rock music, which took over everything. In the Fifties, there was a current of folk-related poetry, of which Cox is one part. My point is that this line of poetry came before the “folk boom” in music, so it was related but not an offshoot. The Fifties did not see exclusively Cold War conservatives writing formal verse. Cox was writing poetry in his folk style in the 1930s (according to the dates he supplied), and was starting from Lawrence, if anything. He considered that his break-through came in 1934. So here is his poem, dated 1934, ‘Earth’:

All• long  or• earth  ages  spin 
the  soft  to  unsoft  hardened  earthboll• 
grim  the  eggcrust•  knit  the  allwrasm 
clombond  hell . . 

all• long  or• earth  earks  and  cares 
and  drees  and  dreams• • 
while  day  by  day  by  dayred  mornlight 
eatgiver  grovels  in  the  grist 
and  awe  and  aware  hie  forth : 
to  rive  and  rise  and  reap  and  rot : 
and  tether  and  team  and  thrill  and  thrust : 
and  hulk  and  harrow  and  heave  and  heel . . 
O  evenrest  and  sleep! . .

Erce’ is a name for an earth goddess in an Anglo-Saxon charm. This style is notable for a lack of any words whose stem is French or Latin, and in fact you can reach a sort of folkiness by deleting all those loan-words and replacing them with unfamiliar Anglo-Saxon words whose meanings are unclear but suggestive. (Allwrasm? Let me get back to you on that one.) Restricting vocabulary restricts, unsurprisingly, the range of propositions you can frame in words. He was a virtuoso in using those clanging monosyllables:

I stumbled, scrambled over bonerings,
over kneeknob, over shin,
slid the lank of rick and ricket,
trod the link of broken fingers,
ran with maggots in the marrow
and smelt the mouldy rug of hair.
I clambered, hobbled, reft and riven,
cracked with rack of rib and riddle,

(from ‘Mummers’ Fool', 1937/1955) On to 1967 -

  My one-eyed life of years no-years 
          watered the raindrops with its tears. 
          Monk-king-warriors with iron laws 
          tore the sweetness from my jaws. 
          yet I could wait while moving on, 
          die and be my new-born son, 
          scatter the limbs of the living folk, 
          cram the cock back into its yolk 
          and hide my heaven in the earth 
          until my death should give it birth. 

Now lying standing above below-stairs

         I can when I cannot unpair the pairs, 
          be together alone and sigh without breath, 
          be selfish and selfless in one living death. 
          For in day-night and howling dumb 
          you push and hold me with your thumb. 
          Brother is sister, all are kin, 
          all the children of my sin: 
          all me, all mine, though through another 
          I eat my father and beget my mother. 

          Thus truth from the hill-top bottom of a well 
          ever comes never in a heaven-bred hell. 

This is the end of the Mummers’ Play (another one, titled ‘A dialogue for National Folk Week’) and is spoken by a Fool who is presumably the spirit of fertility; he is “the old Adam” and everyone is a child of his original sin. This contains theological truths of a sort. A Fool is supposed to speak truths, but we can ask what kind of truths they are when unravelled. A fool’s bladder on a stick is quite like a whirligig. (There is also a reference to natural cycles, I guess.) The core of the above passage is, if anything, a denial of the reality of individual identity, irrelevant faced with the world of fertility and reproduction. A corpse nourishes the fields, so that you eat your ancestors. It follows that human attempts at reasoning, knowing the universe, etc., are illusory. This is a Myth, and it doesn't leave the poems with anything to say. All the paradoxes are an attack on practical reason.

The poems are mainly in a folk style, which emphasises the pagan elements of folklore – the Egyptian poem is an exception but fits in with the other poems. It is a sort of Mummers’ Play restored to high status and relieved of nonsense. The effect is an academically trained painter who consciously produces naive paintings. Cox isn’t completely alone in this – (I did a whole piece on literary poets writing folk poetry, with Tennyson leading the dance) –but it doesn't hold a conversation with us. Cox led a terribly isolated life, as a writer, but the poems sound isolated already. Folk poetry belongs to a community but this poetry does not belong to any community I can detect. We have to mention “Ritual Murder In Hyde Park”, because it’s such a great title for a poem. A footnote explains that it’s the sword-dance kind of Morris dance, which involves a pretend beheading at the climax: “where, fleeing the sword-edge, filling the cleft /his bewildered ghost untwins /with swift outflowing waft unweft.” What about “slid the lank of rick and ricket” - I find this obscure. The whole passage is about physical disintegration (prior to reincarnation), so the body is coming apart; you can ‘rick’ your neck, so ‘rick and ricket’ are both conditions of bones, and we are looking at bones here. ‘Slid’ is about bones parting, as cartilage disappears. But what is ‘lank’? Perhaps ’emaciation’? but, it’s an adjective. The syntax is a bit askew, frustrated by the monosyllables. The patterning is so powerful that it breaks some aspects of language which do not rapidly fit.  Since his publisher said No after Whirligig, (this is from Bradford Haas’ informative essay for Flashpoint) Cox set up his own press to print his poems."35 highly original, beautifully illustrated, hand-made limited edition books followed between 1957 and 1983." If the start date was 1957, this would be a very early example of small press activity in poetry. His pro-peasant attitude would have commended work he printed himself, wood, brass, paper, bodily effort, all that. This was called the Gogmagog Press, after two giants who featured in London pageants from an early date. He did a magazine called ‘Format’. I don’t detect much trace of him reading and publishing other poets, he wasn't really part of a scene. This is not unrelated to the scene ignoring him, you might think. These productions integrated visual design and text in a way which it would be hard to reproduce in digital print technology.
He used a font called Jefferson Gothic which imitates Gothic manuscript lettering and does not look like print.
I don't know why Whirligig only included poems at least nine years old. It wasn’t a reaction against the tepid Fifties scene, as Comfort thought. As Haas remarks, “by the time the book is published in 1954, the work included is already ten to twenty years old.” If we posit Cox as a novice in 1934, it becomes obvious that he is linked to Lawrence. The lawrentian strand did not do well in the 1930s, and that wasn’t just Morris Cox. Haas records Cox attending poetry readings at the Theosophical Society in the 1930s, I don’t know if he was reading magazines like The Quest or if we can connect him to any other Theosophical poets. His earliest work (in ‘Nine Nature Poems’) does have a Symboliste quality, rapturous, dreamlike, archaic, seduced by sound harmonies, which we can connect with a Theosophist ambience. One repeating theme of his work is resurrection as vegetation – the Mummers’ Plays are about the return to life of the plant world at the end of winter. The solstice is a symbol for death. He is more attracted to ‘folk ritual’, plays and dances than to songs, as sources. I think Haas is right to point to affinities between Cox and Ted Hughes – biology and death are so central to both of them. Also, both discard civilised language and use folk legends, consistently. They follow that experimental wilderness path of rejecting French and Latin words, and the cultured world which deploys them as its categories. But the “verse texture” makes them extremely distant from each other, Cox isn’t a proto-Hughes.

I looked at Harold Bayley's book, and it does seem to be a blueprint for Cox's poetry. Bayley's 18th century approach to etymology (so that Gog-Magog connects to "goggle-eyed" and no criticism is possible) prefigures the unchained sound-association which Cox built poems out of. "Archaic England" is junk, really, but you can see that it offers a world of weirdlore and interred folk knowledge, and that Cox spent his whole poetic life in such a world. subtitle "an essay in deciphering prehistory from megalithic monuments, earthworks, customs, coins, placenames, and faerie superstitions." Bayley cites Hadrian Allcroft on his title page, and is perhaps linked to Allcroft in a parallel world of nutters. The index finishes on page 894, but I do not think there is one page of sound scholarship among them. Bayley at p.195 says that "whirligig" means the sun, deriving from a Hebrew word og, meaning to go round, and cognate with giant, Gog Magog, and the surname Cox. Goggle and ogle are the same word.

(weird format problems with this - the blog software just doesn't want you to adjust things and ignores your wishes. this is the third release.)

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