Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Herbert Palmer and the disappearance of entire swathes of poetry

Leering out of the Darkness: Herbert Palmer (1880-1961)

I have been reading about human fossils, and people winning arguments by making exact measurements. With poetry, you can’t zoom in and the results are not reproducible. People can’t agree whether something is made of stone, or of bone. Let alone whether it’s a rib or a talus.
The start point is a 1938 book by Palmer in which he abolishes modern poetry. The book is ‘Post Victorian Poetry’ and brief checks suggest that it remained in print until 1978. The key statement is this: "Surely Mr Eliot never intended The Waste Land to be taken quite so seriously, at least not quite so constructively, especially as it exhibits too many of the features of a hoax...If The Waste Land means anything to me in relation to 2030, it is that The Waste Land will truly be a waste land, unknown and unhonoured, leering out of the darkness at all other English poetry, which will be equally unknown and unhonoured." I have just ordered the book from the Internet, but I did read it about 25 years ago, so I know what the proposition is. Palmer was writing from the point of view that everything to do with Eliot was corrupting and menacing, and I come from the position that Eliot was the most significant poet between the wars, and fundamental to the poetic taste which has flourished since the last world war. There is a complete incompatibility between me and Palmer, and the question is whether we are all fundamentally different from each other and any public statement reflecting taste, e.g. claiming that Eliot was the vital poet in the inter-war era, is by nature unable to reflect a collective truth.

The point of this blog is not to resurrect Palmer (I think he was an idiot) but to explore the subjectivity inherent in the judgement of poetry. This is also the question of whether it is worthwhile writing about poetry (and whether I wasted 20 years when I was doing that every day). I am talking about a situation where I talk to an (imaginary) room with 100 people in it, expound very detailed and convincing views on several books of poetry, and at the end half the room disagree with me. That can’t be success. But there is another way of defining failure – if I read a book in a vanished style, say a book by Noyes or Palmer, and dislike it, that can be defined as a performance failure. Let’s draw the camera closer to home. I read Fiona Sampson’s “Beyond the Lyric”, about poetry roughly 2000 to 2014, and I couldn't relate to the judgements and descriptions at all. My stunned reaction was that maybe other people read my books and couldn't relate to those, either. I had written something like 2500 pages of criticism, so this was a big worry. Suppose Fiona read one of my books, would it mean anything to her? The pebble we are looking at… actually the pebble is me, and I’m just one of a million pebbles on the shore of a sea which makes pebbles to pass the time.

I think calling something “post Victorian poetry” is stupid. You can't describe an era by saying “the era when Victoria was not on the throne”. It is vacuous. My conclusion is that the logical title would have been “modern poetry” and Palmer already had traumatic associations with the word “modern” and was impelled to avoid it. Palmer’s subject area is roughly “everything EXCEPT modernity”, so he writes about whatever was not touched by stylistic reforms. There is an obvious link between this “refuge from modernity” and the UKIP style right-wing populism, which since about 2000 has been, largely, a reaction against globalisation, with (less centrally) a revolt against modern culture because the urge is against everything which the “metropolitan elite” like. There is a class of people for whom the word “modern” represents anxiety – and mention of “London-based literati”arouses suspicion.

Palmer’s attitude is roughly that, where there had been “legislation to change taste” between 1905 and 1938, he rejected the legislation in each case, so that he condemned the poetry welling up from each new idea and favoured the poetry which was written in a “refuge zone”, so out of fashion and ignoring the reforms of taste. This is useful because it sharpens our understanding of those legislative acts. They are the shared history of poetry, it would seem. It is especially interesting to examine poetry from the “refuge zone”, because that would shed light on what the reforms were, and what they were trying to do. We would like to know who originated the new ideas, and how they publicised their new ideas to a scattered world of readers (who were very attached to what they already liked). Is there a sociology of innovation? and, if so, which strata produce the innovations?

Actually, it is more accurate to say that Palmer’s taste froze at a certain point in his life. He finds the Georgian reforms quite acceptable but does not then go on to assimilate the new ideas of the 1920s.
There is another argument here. Culture makes people converge. You sit there in a reading, you all have the same reactions at the same moment. You breathe in synchrony. If you take part in poetry readings, and in reading poetry, for forty years, you naturally get closer to other people in the same scene. This makes it reasonable to think that you can speak to other people, reasonable to publish your judgements and expect them to be meaningful outside your own front door. Of course, it makes certain moments of the conversation developmental, because they are where you realise what other people's version is. You then converge on that, for the sake of the conversation and for the sake of poetry itself. Those moments are also where you realise what a poet is about, what they are aiming for. And the gratification in poetry is partly the pleasure of pleasing the poet – you get what they are saying and feel happy. The gratification is a conditioning stimulus, it affects how you react next time. It builds a new organ. You feel “symbolic” approval, and this is possibly what separates people who give a lot of time to culture from others who don’t. But the developmental moments are when you read a convincing page by a critic, for example, or look at the selection page of an anthology, or maybe at a publisher’s list. Those are moments when you find a piercing light being shed on your own reactions, but also a similar light poured onto other people's feelings. This lets you detect norms – and you are then able to assimilate them, maybe right away or maybe after a couple of years. To repeat, if you go through a lot of this you become aware of where other people's sensibility runs and of where you stand in relation to the “centre” of poetry. It is reasonable to think that there is a collective conversation about poetry, and that the poetry is an extension of the conversation. I like the sound of this. But that is why it is disturbing, or worthwhile, to read someone like Palmer and find that there was a completely different conversation going on, and that Palmer rejected every inter-war poet whom we still find interesting, while having an audience for his opinions, and a “constellation”, an “asset network” of anti-modern poets whom he favoured (and whom he thought were going to dominate the Future when all this materialist and urban frenzy had died away). Maybe we only remember one of several inter-war literary cultures. Maybe the majority of the reading public found “modernism” alien and not at all pleasurable.
I find that Palmer uses the word “Georgian revolt”. I find this interesting, because I picked it up from Robert H. Ross’s book (1965, English edition 1967) and used it as a chapter title (in a book called “Centre and periphery”). Is this from Palmer? or did someone, Edward Thomas maybe, use it around 1914? To be exact he has two chapters on the First and Second Georgian Revolts. So, apparently, I am recycling Palmer's idea. Another point is that Faber published Palmer’s book ‘Season and Festival’ in 1943, even though he had gone on record as the world's most determined anti-Eliot figure in 1938. Palmer published a poem called Cinder-Thursday (described in his book-list as “a parody”), which would seem to be a parody of 'Ash-Wednesday'. A bookseller describes it thus “A parody of T.E. Eliot's Wasteland and Ash Wednesday.” OK, Eliot didn’t mind being parodied. Not sure who this TE Eliot was.

Ancillary evidence is RL Mégroz’s book Modern English Poetry 1882-1932, published in 1933, which I used to have a copy of. I found it very sympathetic, but he seemed to like everything and in the end it wasn’t possible to read the scores of lesser poets whom he enjoyed. Mégroz is not even close to Palmer, or to other versions of the landscape as reflected by “The Faber Book of Modern verse”, 1936, or the 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse.

Palmer makes visible a sort of absolute strangeness. His whole outlook on poetry is meaningless to me – a non-repeatable observation. I want to turn that strangeness into a pebble and hold it in my hand. And it cuts both ways – I represent absolute strangeness for another observer. Maybe even for someone the same age as me, but with different cultural assets or investments. I rely on the power of empathy to conclude that by writing for long enough I can make my reactions “learnable”, and so that the whole makes the individual parts clear.

That idea of agreeing “this one is a stone and that one's a piece of bone” does not seem possible to achieve for the period 1900 to 1938, certainly not for Palmer’s favoured poets, whom we now regard as kitsch and religion at one remove. I reported (in my previous four blogs) that empiricism was the successful reform of the early decades of the 20th C. However, at the outset there were probably readers who regarded such adherence to facts as inherently disappointing and unartistic, and felt that “verbal magic” was where poetry lived. “We” never means everyone.

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