Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Noyes and rhetoric, five: the academic dominance of taste?

Noyes and rhetoric, five

Event A

We are investigating the linked populist Right theses about culture, about being too Left-liberal, not representing most of the population, reflecting the views of a metropolitan elite, being unpatriotic and secular, being fashion-driven and obsessed with small formal distinctions, etc. I don’t like any of these theses but it seems part of being civic to discuss them.
This time we are going to discuss a theory that poetry was taken over, in the 1950s, by an academic taste which rewrote history to erase everybody who wasn’t intellectual, made it impossible for poetry to be popular, and linked the fate of poetry to the academy. We will call this event A, for brevity. I don’t see any detailed or explicit statement of this; it is a significant fact that the populist arguments are never made at length, they are circulated mainly as anecdotes, suggestions, insults, etc. This asymmetry is important – the complete set of academic statements about poetry is matched only by a range of populist positions which are couched in allusive and fragmentary ways and quite well suited to life as brief subjective and angry comments in social media sites. However, we have for the period 1901-38 a source, Herbert Palmer’s book (see previous blog), which is so remote from other treatments that it acts as evidence that an academic taste existed – being whatever Palmer disagrees with, crudely.

Two of the main shifts during the 20th century were the decline of nationalism and religion, two emotional patterns which abidingly resisted evidence and plugged directly into intuition, or prejudice. This shift applies to culture at large as well as to poetry. Because universities are dedicated to finding evidence to test theories and attitudes, and because they have a belief in objective knowledge, it may be that spending time in academia encourages the poet to deploy evidence in poetry. That is, they would introduce facts in order to explain states of mind, or tenets of belief, rather than simple assertion, or use of symbolic images. Such poems would do well in Close Reading classes. We would call this an empirical kind of poetry. Testable knowledge competes with prejudice or ideology (intellectual speculation) as the authoritative source of the information which is the substance of poetry. This sounds convincing, but, as my last few posts have argued, the rise of facts and checking is much wider than poetry, and is part of a civilisation based on technical knowledge and on the purchase of commodities. However, the move away from religion did happen earlier among the educated.

Attributing the change of taste exclusively to the universities is clearly wrong. Two key moments in this event were the publications of FR Leavis’ New Bearings In English Poetry (1932) and of Kenneth Allott’s Penguin Contemporary Poetry (editions in 1950 and 1962). It is reasonable to think that these were influential on how poetry was read, and in fact that the taste which they condemned (by omission in Allott’s case) came to be seen as kitsch. Allott underwrote a view in which Eliot and Auden were the major poets of the 20th century (up to 1960), and this did tend to equate intelligence with good poetry. Noyes does not feature in Allott’s book; he had sold a lot of books, but has made an exit from the market-place. We can see these two books as bad moments for Noyes, without having to accept that everybody fell into line when these two academics proposed a line. It is equally credible that the poetry public was composed of obstinate and non-suggestible people, who acted by intuition, were conservative in bias, and had limited exposure to “taste-makers”. We can propose an alternative explanation for Noyes’ exit, namely that his poetry actually is kitsch. Without getting too deeply into the evidence (there is too much of it), Noyes is also omitted from Yeats’ Oxford Book of Modern Verse. I counted about 85 poets who are treated in detail in Palmer's book (with more than half a page, roughly) and found that only 15 of them make it into Allott's anthology. Allott was culling the literary stock as well as recording it. Admittedly, Allott does not start until 1918 - but he does include Laurence Binyon, and Palmer says Binyon was too old to be included in the first Georgian Book.

When in 1967 the little Penguin book The Mersey Sound sold a hundred thousand copies (eventual sales even higher), it was possible to see this as a revolt against a dominant academic taste. My suspicion is that it was never dominant. Most people who were reading poetry were not reading books about poetry, and the role of “serious” reviews in getting poetry known is always controversial. The Liverpool poets reached their audience, I would think, first by live readings and then by word of mouth. The books which the serious reviewers praised (always temperately) did not necessarily sell very well at all; which is not proof of “dominance”. I am happy to agree that there was a large anti-intellectual taste in the Sixties which liked pop poetry, but I have to insist that there was a large anti-intellectual public taste in the 1950s. It may have been true that the Close Reading reviewers, in Critical Quarterly for instance, were out of step with the market. The strange thing is that they wanted this: they were a reform group and this is only possible if you start by being out of step. Actually, this was a reason for buying their books, or Critical Quarterly itself.

The situation of academics in a country where there are very few graduates encourages them to take up the attitudes of a minority, either as rebels and martyrs, or as an elite acting out behaviour models to be copied. The position of serious reviewers, up until the Seventies at least, was of people who knew reading techniques, or maybe moral principles, which everybody else didn’t: this was only possible if you were a minority, and consensus would destroy it as a position (or as a commodity).

It is interesting that Allott omits Rudyard Kipling, from his book labelled 1918-60. It is awkward to locate the real significance of this, since Kipling barely published any poetry after 1919 ('The Years Between'); quite probably he was someone who wrote great poetry but who was politically unacceptable in 1960. I am doubtful that Allott was staking out new territory here: Kipling disappeared partly because he was a militarist and people had bad memories of the Great War, partly because he was an imperialist and the empire became emotionally unfashionable after 1945. Surely these attitude shifts came from outside the poetry community.

The word “hegemony” is often used here. That would be to say, the universities had a hegemony on literary taste after 1950 (or after 1930? or 1980?). I suspect that hegemony is anything that someone else believes that you don’t. There is a piece of false logic – books about poetry are bound to be written by more or less intellectual people because anyone else would get bored and so flake out. It is credible that both the people who read books about poetry aren't typical of people who read poetry. The books have to be interesting, and so they have to contain ideas– even if a lot of poetry readers are afraid of ideas. I can accept that academics take over some of the jobs as critics (and partly as editors) from a group of freelance agents, (like Read or DS Savage) but not that the written record catches the movement of the market. Let us cite Poetry Review, and Herbert Palmer’s 1938 book Post-Victorian Poetry, as counter-evidence – expressions of views which are completely non-academic and anti-intellectual. I have looked at a few issues of Poetry Review from the 1950s, and they are scarily unintelligent. They ran an attack on modern poetry and then a set of letters which agreed in being scared of “modern poetry”. My point is that people who found it helpful to set out their ideas at length, in words, were exceptional, and exceptionally intellectual, cultivated, and modern. They are possibly where modern taste came from. But the others could be in the majority without leaving much of a record behind – their views were prejudices and had been learnt informally rather than from ambitious theoretical writings.
An area where event A is real is in the teaching of poetry in schools. Certainly the teachers are influenced by the academic degrees which they studied for. People who reject poetry probably can associate that with bad memories of lessons at school. But this is misleading; after all people don’t learn about rock music or cinema from school, but they enjoy them. School is associated with poetry because teenagers don’t read it much outside school – so the rejection is a social thing, pervasive and the product of voiceless and intangible processes. The school part would not be important if poetry hadn't already vanished from a normal consumption pattern. It is irrational to make the school central in the formation of taste. Admittedly, people who give a lot of time to poetry as adults mostly have favourable memories of poetry at school. If they liked their teachers, that is contact with the university, at one remove.
There is something simpler than “hegemony”, namely that, where huge numbers of people were going to university and eventually becoming graduates, the “academic” taste spread for basic numerical reasons. The theory of “close reading” is that you take your primary aesthetic reaction and find what signs inside the fabric of the verse brought the reaction about. In theory it is completely permissive and so should not bring about assimilation, that is, reduction of attitudes that don’t conform to the rest of the class. Most people don’t find that it is quite so neutral.

I don’t have suggestions about poets who should be celebrated and advanced in front of Eliot and Auden. It is clear that there are some stylistic features which link Francis Thompson, William Watson, Noyes, and Stephen Phillips, and that all of those poets have been kicked into the long grass by modern taste (since about 1930). But those stylistic features add up to kitsch.

If we consider British poetry 1900 to 1938, I would think that the poets who are still read are like this:
War Poets (probably Owen, Rosenberg, Sassoon)
Robert Graves
Edward Thomas
TS Eliot
Dylan Thomas
WH Auden
women poets (in a lump, in revisionist anthologies only)
Stephen Spender
Hugh MacDiarmid
Note that I omit poets who had made a reputation before 1900 (so, for instance, Housman, Hardy, Kipling). We know that many poets well-known at the time have now lapsed from memory.
Palmer’s record on this list is like this.
War Poets (probably Owen, Rosenberg, Sassoon) admires – but features Robert Nichols, Owen, Sassoon, and Graves
Robert Graves -present
Edward Thomas Palmer likes him a lot
TS Eliot ridiculed
Dylan Thomas not mentioned
WH Auden brief mention (says “whose verse […] seems to have excommunicated more than it has communicated – including, of course, the English language”.
women poets – favourable if vague chapter on women poets)
Stephen Spender tiny mention (says SS was influenced by Robert Bridges)
Hugh MacDiarmid mentioned but not discussed

I am not sure if people still read the poetry of DH Lawrence and Edith Sitwell. Bunting was born in 1900 but his poetry up to 1951 is negligible, and it is his two late long poems which people mainly read.

I have suggested that the contrast between Palmer and (say) Allott is between naive taste and academic taste. But an alternative view is that they are simply two different generations and that the changes in taste were chronological. They would correspond to shifts in taste affecting furniture or clothes. I think shifts in time give scholars difficulty because they imply that the scholar is subject to forces they can’t control and not on a raised vantage point outside Time. Academics these days want to write about poetry in terms of gender, class, or ethnic group. These do not offer an account of why poetry changed. They may not offer more than a very crude account of differences in taste. That is, the view through identity politics may fail when the usual empirical tests, looking for evidence and asking for the basic theory to have a visible trace in the texts, are applied.
Allott was an academic and his anthology confirmed the disappearance of a range of poets, including Noyes and Watson. But, this was probably not controversial at the time. My guess is that Allott was rather selfless and that his selection is of very high quality. He wasn’t carrying out some kind of coup d’etat. In fact Palmer already basically writes Noyes off – he likes his 1920s poem on the history of science but basically says his early work, hugely popular, was kitsch. This is pretty much what I felt about Noyes. Allott would have been eccentric to pack Noyes into his anthology in 1962.
The reason for a constant change of taste may be as simple as the fact that nobody buys the same book of poetry twice. The commercial sense wants to acquire and put out new product all the time. If you don’t issue new books every quarter, you don’t have a business. Change is there absolutely all the time and is not dependent on theoretical reforms or sociological changes.

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