Noyes and Rhetoric, four: legislation? ↔
It seems fair to start with an unorthodox thesis about the collapse of rhetorical poetry. This is, that the new order of things put stress on facts rather than flowery language, on evidence rather than beautiful fantasies. These values were native to prose (and, as things evolved, also to photographs, or arguments based on numbers and shown by graphics, as opposed to purely verbal ones). In the theatre, actors moved to a more matter of fact, conversational, understated, delivery. This was not suited to verse, and in fact verse drama vanished from the stage (having done quite well between roughly 1900 and 1914). All of this is compatible with the eclipse of poetry. The market share of poetry books fell rapidly and decisively. It moved to the margins of the bookshop world. This applied mainly to living poetry – work by dead poets remained popular and established, and of course this work was normally in a high rhetorical style, in a language far removed from speech. The rise of fact, numbers, and empiricism did not give rise to a new kind of poetry, but to the eclipse of poetry as part of the cultural market-place.
So, during the 20th C we have a democratic process whereby most of the reading public migrates away from living poets. In parallel, we have various shifts of taste enacted within whatever nucleus of readers poetry retains. With these, we have to distinguish between unanimity and legitimacy. Each of the changes probably had a significant minority which opposed it, at least for a couple of decades. But, just as a 52:48 split is enough to produce a legitimate government, a consensus in the poetry world doesn't mean 100% of the interested audience (or, certainly, of the population which has no idea what is going on in poetry).
It is possible to see radical changes to the rules of poetry either as the product of organic changes, or of arbitrary actions by a metropolitan elite which they impose on the public more or less as a legislative coup – a moment of setting the rules without democratic assent. The de-legitimated can't legitimate or de-legitimate. This doesn't sound wholly fair.
The changes in 20th C would include these (at least):
the abandonment of a consistently rhetorical style
the preference for empirical knowledge, for concrete objects, the record of the senses, measurements, technical knowledge, etc.
the abandonment of religious-militarist-nationalist poetry
the change from regular metre to free verse
the abandonment of religion in favour of secular forms of interpreting behaviour
the jettison of the New Romantic style in favour of something more severe
the shift to hedonism and the present tense in the Sixties
the rise of a Formalist style, so metrical regularity, in association with Christian, conservative attitudes, during the Cold War
the spread of feminism, and consequent stigmatisation of anti-feminist attitudes, during the 1970s and 1980s
I have omitted “the shift whereby everything had to be Left-liberal and usually a protest about something”, because I am not so sure about this. I did not mention modernism, because that was always a minority thing, and cannot be said to be a consensus preference.
It will be seen that the departure from religion was incomplete.
It is arguable that all of these prevailed over only parts of the field, and that at any point there were poets who followed different paths without being excluded from the sites of visibility.
It seems very likely that all of these represented the wishes of some large fraction of the reading public at the time, so the idea of a “metropolitan elite” running things is not quite plausible. New ideas have a source somewhere, but these “new rules” could not have spread if the interested audience had not given their assent. The existence of a fringe of resentful people, semi-participants is undeniable – especially among poets. But it does not follow that the resentful agreed with each other (or even that they had developed a real alternative). They were more the ones who were bottom of the shortlist, as it were. It does not seem likely that people who paid to be published by a vanity press also legitimated the editors who turned them down. Most likely, they rejected the legitimacy of those editors.
I looked at Allott’s Penguin anthology of Contemporary Poetry (re-published as Mid-century Poetry). Date window, 1918 to 1960. This contained a 7% share of women poets and a 39.5% share of poets who had studied at Oxford University. (I apologise for quoting these figures frequently.) It is open to anyone to argue that the right to speak was given to the socially dominant groups, and that aesthetic judgement was fatally entangled with reverence for the possession of power; that is, that voices associated with power were taken as more worth listening to, their language as the authoritative kind of language. That is - that the powerless are unconvincing?
I gave up on this after looking at poets who were left out of Allott’s selection. I think it is a very good anthology, and that the strange distribution patterns we are looking at are to do with the sociology of the country, during the mid-century, and not with bias on Allott’s part. He could not anthologise poetry which had not been written.
There is a pendant to the dominance of the educated (and those successful in the education system’s rankings). I did some work on the British Library Catalogue for 1960 (the year when Allott’s anthology stops, although the publication date was 1962). I was trying to download a list of all poetry titles published in 1960 – this may not have succeeded, as there is a lack of tags by which you could identify them. All the same, I was taken aback to realise that one third of the titles came from vanity presses. This was a check on the legitimacy of the self-legitimating. The legitimate poetry world was surrounded by figures who thought their poetry was important, who had presumably been rejected by reputable publishers, who had, probably, not worked out what the modern style was, and who (probably) had a good deal of resentment for the editors and reviewers “in post” I am going to quote something from 1951 (I apologise for having quoted this before). This is the testimony of someone who had read a great deal of amateur poetry for a special purpose. I will include the comments I made myself.
“The idea of a reservoir beneath our feet was tapped into by the Festival of Britain. Along with so many other examples of the obscure, eccentric, and charming, they drilled for the wellspring of amateur poets, using the simple method of offering a prize for the unknowns. (To be exact the known were only excluded by the need for the poems to be unpublished.) The judges were an awesome battery of old-fashioned taste and connoisseurship. The scripts were either a long poem or a collection of short poems and 2,093 of them rolled in. Most of the scripts have long since been burnt and restored to the Elements. However, John Hayward’s emotive summary survives: ‘There was [...] a great deal of very bad verse, ranging in ineptitude from the expanded cracker-motto to grandiloquent failure to imitate Paradise Lost. There were the great Imperial sagas from the first week of the Creation to VE Day; the sacred oratorios and the patriotic hymns; the epics of rural life and odes to British Industry. There were the oddities which relieved the monotony of the judges’ task – poems written on cardboard, or in coloured chalks, or on scraps of paper, or in block capitals; poems engrossed on vellum with illuminated capitals, or with calligraphic title-pages, and bound with loving care, complete with leather thongs or silk ties. There were the eccentrics and the moonstruck, bemused and halting followers of Blake and Smart, with their obscure cosmic visions and their fearful prophecies of imminent damnations underscored in blood-red ink. And above all, there was the vast chorus of those content to chant in monotonous unison the joys of love and springtime, with special emphasis on bird-song at morning and starshine at night.’ Hayward sounds a bit battered. Maybe there is no wonderful reservoir of bashfully authentic naive poetry? He observes that the entries showed a remarkable lack of response to the prestige of Hopkins, Eliot and Yeats: ‘Their sources, if any, would seem to have been [...] entirely of nineteenth century origin, and principally of the Romantic period.’"
It has been said of Hayward that "He was sometimes called the most malicious man in London". Reading bad poetry makes you malicious. This body of work probably includes much of the poetry coming out from vanity presses in 1960, although I can’t confirm that by reading the texts. What struck me was that there had been a whole series of “legislative acts”, which had made poetry of the previous phase obsolete and validated the poetry of the new phase. Hayward was identifying poetry as bad for being out of date – he was not also asking why this legislation had been passed (or who had passed it). The genre of the "great Imperial sagas from the first week of the Creation to VE Day” sounds very much like something Noyes would have written. The conclusion is that there had been legislative shifts of taste several times during the 20th century, and that a large number of poets had not been sufficiently involved in new poetry publication to realise that the rules had changed. The shifts were evidently “partly a consensus”, that is, they were a consensus only for people well-informed enough to know what modern poetry (since 1940, or since 1900?) was like.
It is odd that the critics claim originality as the key for favoured poets, but the first thing that they have to do is to assimilate all the changes of the last twenty years, to become up to date. It is hard to explain how these two things coincide.
I believe that art is a very social thing, and that much of what is happening during the reading of a book of poetry, or going round an exhibition, is assimilation. If you consume a lot of culture, you assimilate to the symbols and stylistic gestures it uses. Culture is not going to work unless you do this. The start point in reading a poem is identifying with the feelings and ideas in the poem, this is temporary but as you read thousands of poems the acquisition becomes permanent, and you have moved towards where the poets are.
Painters may talk about their sources of inspiration in personal revolt, but in actual fact they are reading art magazines every week and they partake of the “language of modern art” as laid down in those magazines. So also for poets, I think.
So reading one poem gets you close to the poet. Rhythm makes your breaths coincide. You are thinking the same thing at the same time. Thousands of people reading books of poetry creates an impressive solidarity. This is the “dominant taste”. As you empathise with the poet, you get closer to the poet and to the other readers. My feeling is that “the excluded”, the ones who published with vanity presses (probably 2000 volumes over a 40-year period, sad to say), hadn't been reading modern poetry, missed the socialisation process, and just didn’t know what modern taste was. The books and magazines were freely on sale, but they didn’t have the shopping knowledge to go and get hold of them. Changes to poetry are validated by the wishes of the market (they reject some innovations and assimilate others), they are not arbitrary acts by individuals or cliques. But to get with modern taste you need to be reading modern poetry.
Let’s return to the count in Allott’s anthology. 40.6% Oxford graduates. Obviously being an insider has an effect. These people hung out with people who frequently read modern poetry and so they understood what the market wanted. They could connect the language of poems with the language of conversation – a barrier which tumbled. There are too many implications to unfold. Thinking about the insiders, about the inside itself, allows us to understand more about the outsiders. Modern poetic language is not secret – it is always being published. But you can be such an outsider that you fail as a shopper, never find it. So ‘New Signatures’, 1932, put the new poetry thing on record. It was freely on sale. But if you were cut off you wouldn’t find out that this was the new thing, or that it even existed. It had nine poets, who already knew what the “new thing” was. But you could join in. (Was it five Oxford, three Cambridge? sparing the details.) We will talk more about Michael Roberts later.
We can define the legislation of poetry more accurately by looking at the people who didn’t hear about it and whose activity was not affected by it. Everybody wants to legitimate themselves but the ones whose self-legitimation goes over control what happens next. Is this related to UKIP’s anti-metropolitan contention? it’s related but it isn’t the same thing.
Watson’s paper is “The Silent Revolution in Methods of Advocacy in English Courts", 2016.
Watson makes clear that part of the old-style courtroom was blatant unfairness. Advocates sought to polarise emotions in order to discredit the other side. This involved abusing witnesses – the goal was to make the accused, and everyone who testified somehow in his favour, seem absurd, inferior, and disgusting. This is notably similar to what tabloid newspapers do today – an archaic pattern which forces of objectivity have tried to suppress. One big change, he records, was that judges became much more forceful about preventing barristers from bullying witnesses. It became harder to show “educated man exposing uneducated witness as unreliable and mendacious” as a scene which decided a jury.
I discuss this because it might seem as if nostalgia for “great speeches” were in order. Oratory did not always have an idealistic basis. The link with melodrama in theatre is obvious. The twentieth century was just cooler in manner, more curious about the facts.
If we look at Noyes’ poem, the basis in prejudice is obvious. He writes about Trafalgar but makes the French and Spanish fleets evaporate. The link between depersonalising the French and the Spanish, and erasing any differences among the British to assert aggressive group identity, is all too obvious. The underlying structure of separating mankind into allies and enemies, and thriving on the uncontrolled forces of aggression and depersonalisation, is exactly what Watson is talking about for the criminal courts, and it is a formula for violence.
A basic part of modernity is not seeking a split between heroes and villains. This crosses many realms of human (symbolic) activity. That split worked very well for older advocates, politicians, and playwrights.