Friday, 13 November 2020

Herbert Palmer - more and better

Palmer, two: more about Palmer’s 1938 book

This is some better detail on poetry between 1901 and 1938, as recorded by Palmer.
I don’t think Palmer was an idiot. I take that back. But there is a problem in that he hates modernism, and can only represent it through parody, and that he cannot find anything (else) significant happening after 1920. He doesn’t make this explicit, but the implication of all the detail he piles up is that the crisis was, not eccentric (and irrational?) poets writing under the influence of Dada and Surrealism, but the drying up of the main current of English verse, which had flowed ever since the Elizabethans. He doesn't push forward any new poets, after the fifth Georgian Book, as significant even in conservative terms.
I was disappointed, because what I wanted was to find out about poets who went on writing “nationalist-patriotic" poems after the fashion for that collapsed, and Palmer says there weren’t any. My thesis was that there was a sector of poets who weren't aware of fashions because they weren’t aware of the book market, and who continued dozens of forgotten verbal and cultural styles. This may not be true, or at least Palmer doesn't bear it out.
I also wanted something intimate about the thriving of kitsch, or at least about why poetry moved away from it. That is, if we view Noyes, Stephen Phillips, Francis Thompson, as kitsch. Palmer is not really interested by these poets and doesn't see the march away from that overripe style as especially important. Again, he doesn't give me information about poets who failed to notice the change of style and were still writing kitsch in 1930. This is frustrating. My impression is that poetry was more dominated by fashion, a hundred years ago, than it is now, because it was more linked to the commercial system. We seem to have poetry as an act of piety, almost, but buying a book is akin to buying a cake; it involves temptation, indulgence, and fascination with novelty.

This is what Palmer says about Sir William Watson, who got a baronetcy for a fulsome wartime poem praising Lloyd George– telling untruth to power, basically: “Only a few of his poems have a completely independent existence, for their music had to be felicitous to survive the conventional phrasing. The good in the man seemed to be well known, the bad was getting more frequent and self-evident; and as he was a rather pompous egotist (almost as bad a megalomaniac as John Davidson) and believed in himself beyond the confines of normality, all you could do was to shrug your shoulders and leave him alone. He could not develop. [...] He was a back number, and on the shelf.”
This is really good literary criticism. I don't think people are so honest today. Palmer carefully finds the good in Watson while making it clear just how bad he was. He doesn't use the word “kitsch” but really Watson is a prime example of it.

“By 1910 Kipling had had his day, his great vogue, and suddenly Masefield stepped triumphantly into his shoes.” - This is really interesting; it wasn’t the war which toppled Kipling, although obviously by 1920 a militarist seemed to be a monstrous thing. Militarism had been on the poetic agenda since 1897 (‘Admirals All’), and fashions rarely last so long.

Palmer writes interestingly about Modernism because he is so uninhibited: he is like someone locked in an environment he doesn't understand, bombarded with stimuli which he forms into multiple explanatory patterns, all of which are wrong. He gives us 58 pages on Modernism, all of which seems erroneous and overwrought to us today, since we know what the poets were really saying. But, actually, he found Modernism very stimulating: his reaction is full of new patterns, even though they are the result of disorientation and frustration.
“And as the rhythm of modern life is so mixed and jarred, and full of dissonances and artificial derivations, you do, of course, find the expression of all this in the rhythms and moments and quotations and kaleidoscope patterns of The Waste Land – which is suggestive of gramophone groanings, wireless adjustings, machinery buzzings, fog-horn explosions, cinema clackings, motor traffic, underground traffic, street wanderings, the tarred road, comic opera, jazz, typewriter clickings and sandwich-paper rustlings.”
Palmer doesn't differentiate between poetry having a cultural critique, and capturing negative features of an industrial civilisation, and poetry being unpleasant (and anti-aesthetic). But there is a deeper problem, which brings us up against Time issues: faced with a new rhythm, he wants to break it down and replace it with a familiar rhythm, whereas someone younger would assimilate to it, and hear the tune as it is being played. This rigidity presents itself as a belief in rules (always described as ‘eternal’). It is pretty much like hearing a jazz tune and interpreting it as just being a series of mistakes – you could improve it by removing all the syncopation and the blue notes. Palmer may have been rigid because he liked what was already there; this is speculative. Anyway, age makes for rigidity.
Palmer doesn’t mention the phenomenon of “bypass areas” and their populations; but, in 1938, he was clearly living in such a bypassed area, because he rejected the new poetry of the past (almost) twenty years. This would stand more exploration than he gives it; if you are part of the literary world for forty years (or more), and fashions change every five years, you may spend a lot of your life on a island – cut off from what is happening and repeating patterns you already know.
Maybe it is true that “poetry in the past twenty years has simply gone crazy and is just howling”, but it is also possible that you have lost your receptivity and your brain is just rejecting new patterns. It could be either, couldn't it.

I only have one real problem with Palmer’s classification. He discusses WJ Turner as part of the “moonlight school”, who dominated the fifth Georgian Book, and does not add to that; whereas I see Turner as a Modernist, and something like “The Seven Days of the Sun” can only be classified in that way.

He mentions one Katherine M Buck: “Another poet of ‘heroic’ dimensions is Katherine M Buck, who in the Wayland-Dietrich Saga has written ‘the world’s longest poem’, a gigantic unveiling of myth and folk-lore and barbaric customs, an enormous work revealing wide and massive scholarship and much knowledge of wild life in the country.” A bookseller’s list advises “9x6. 3608pp. Frontis, some b/w illus and maps. Ex-libris. This saga describing the legendary life and times of the Gothic King Theoderic the Great, remembered in Germanic legend as Dietrich von Bern, casts a fascinating light on the life and customs of the thirteenth century., showing our mediaeval forefathers as they lived and hated, loved and died." In 8 volumes (plus an Index volume). OK, that is quite long. We have sword and sworcery tales and so did they. Theoderic died in AD 526, not the 13th C.

I wanted to find confirmation of the thesis that poetry became more empirical and more preoccupied with fact and the testing of ideas. Palmer does not directly comment on this, but where he describes the Georgians you can fairly accurately interpret part of it as representing the rise of fact and the shunning of rhetoric. He lists 12 features of Georgian poetry – the careful breakdown is an empirical effort in itself, avoiding generalisations and the assumption of authority. There is also this comment on the development of Noyes in the Twenties –“It is interesting [to…] notice the post-War increase of a mystical and intellectual horizon and a more fastidious way with words.”
I am not sure about the mysticism.

I wanted to check if there were other verse dramas beside the ones of Phillips, but Palmer is not explicit about this. Flecker wrote the beautiful ‘Hassan’, but I think this was only produced after his death (by Basil Dean). In 1923. Choreography by Fokine, music by Delius. It was a big hit. A stray Web page informs me that Hassan was the last full-scale West End production of a verse drama until Murder In the Cathedral. I am not sure which production this means, since the 1937 production was at the Mercury Theatre, which is too far out (Notting Hill) to be West End. I am guessing the West End production came after the war.

It is convenient to think of “Georgian” poetry as being one single thing, but in fact the anthologies were conceived of as displaying a whole generation, and the poets were very diverse – quite apart from the 5th anthology being different from the first one. The most puzzling thing about Palmer is his identification of a “Second Georgian Revolt”. This is defined thus: “Even though the moon be not mentioned by name it is frequently felt. The landscape is hushed. The winds are still, with just faint clouds trailing their gauzy edges across its disk. The music of the verse is slow and mournful. The colours are uncertain, tending to dissolve into greys and dark greens and silvery blues. The Celtic Twilight has moved forward into the Georgian Moonlight.” This is the Moonlight School. It is surprising if many poets began doing the same thing, but Palmer remarks of the 4th and 5th Georgian Books - “Each of the post-War Georgian anthologies is excessively pastoralist. Now we are definitely confronted by the poetry of escape, not only from the ardours and horrors of War, but also from the demands and decisions of the peace that followed it.” Not a revolt, more of a wandering off into the woods.

I wanted to identify the point where poetry became associated with Left-liberal positions, so that people with Right attitudes kept them quiet and did not expect poetry to express them. Well, I couldn't locate this date before reading Palmer, and Palmer sheds no further light on it. I would guess that “1965” would be a good moment to look at. But the history of anti-Left cultural positions is more complex than people give them credit for. Filtering non-political poetry, and statements, to dig out pebbles of political thought, is exciting because it reveals things we don’t know about. The more unfamiliar they are, the less they are a significant part of the life of poetry, as opposed to some unconscious and interred layer of detritus. There isn’t really a heritage of Cold War Poetry, even if the Cold War was prominent in the news and in the way the poets reacted to the newspaper every day. Writing “empirical” poetry expressed a support of Cold War positions for some people – because it represented a rejection of ideology. But, the factual style was very widespread, and you could probably find people writing in a documentary, factual style who were actually Marxists if you asked about their political beliefs.

No comments:

Post a Comment