Sunday, 29 November 2020

Noyes and rhetoric, six

Noyes and rhetoric, 6

To recap. The start point was politological books by Matthew Goodwin and collaborators which analysed the “Right populist” movements like UKIP and observed that, even if you disregard the objectives of such movements as unrealistic and scarcely beneficial even to their supporters, the orthodox political system was not talking to a large minority of the electorate, maybe 15%, in a language which they recognised. A symptom of this was a resentment against a “liberal metropolitan elite”. I wanted to relate this to poetry, which after all has lost public support to a far greater extent than the major political parties. As this “dwindling minority” situation has been stable for rather a long time, I went back to a point where we can perhaps see it starting, and replacing a quite different arrangement. Allott’s 1962 anthology, which included a 39.5% share of Oxford graduates in its list of poets, is a document which must raise doubts about legitimacy in any reader. However, Allott’s “clean sweep” very clearly follows up the earlier “clean sweep” in Michael Roberts’ Faber Book of Modern Verse, and this is what we have been discussing.

The tenor of this post will be that an “anti elitist” poetry is there but unable to compete with the “respectable” poetry on artistic grounds. Further, that explaining why things happened is going beyond what the evidence gives us. It works better if we just concentrate on what happened, rescuing that from forgetting. Further, that the poetry which has been consecrated by major anthologies (for example, from Faber or Penguin) probably deserved to win, and competed chiefly by attracting and persuading readers, not by crushing the opposition through institutional means.

The populist line, which I am inventing/voicing rather than drawing from any articulated source, would be that: the authoritative anthologies do not represent popular taste. Academics have a strong group ethos and are happy to ignore popular taste. Roberts in 1936 carried out a “clean sweep” leaving out maybe 80 poets of that time, and those poets represent the democratic taste which Modernism despised. He and Allott included a lot of Oxford poets who weren't very good but who were part of an in-group. The new taste was individualistic, aimed at private reading; this made it indifferent to rhetoric, which is essentially collective, part of performance, where people are swept away by a group identity. It also propelled it away from the wider cultural audience, which wants collective experience and is not in love with abstractions. The idea of a style relevant to a moment also allows the majority of poets to be swept into oblivion as “out of date”. The fashion impulse which works in other arts fails to work in poetry because of the dominance of an educated minority; the idea “out of date” is simply how they express their dominance. The succession of styles is not replacement, but the continuity of a cultural elite, validating itself and invalidating others. Academic poetry teaching is too focussed on Close Reading. The qualities which appeal to academics, obsessed with testing people, make poetry unattractive to the majority, who want a collective experience. Academic poetry is over-complex, allusive, and obscure, because this flatters the abilities which academics have (and which most people don’t). Populist poetry is cut off from its history because academics administer that history, and only put academic poetry on record.

So much, then, the (notional) anti-metropolitan line. I can’t get rid of this, because the evidence is not dense enough to resolve questions about processes which are, effectively, unrecorded. I find the line intuitively unconvincing. Roberts and Allott produced great anthologies, not fragile and contemptuous collections of fakes. A key moment is, evidently, when ‘The Mersey Sound’ was published in 1967, was very popular, and was completely uninteresting to educated reviewers (see previous post!). Popular taste did not match what the universities were recommending. However, this reveals to me that the retail world always had an existence separate from the world of universities. To be contrary, perhaps, I would suspect that the Liverpool scene came out of art colleges and its first audiences were students. That is, it was part of a wider academic world, which assembled large numbers of young people in close proximity. I suspect most poets find Close Reading a problem when they are being creative: it negates creativity but it is so neutral that you can't refute it. You don’t write a book of poetry by applying Close Reading until it is nearly finished.

Also, I think that because poetry is made of information it offers greater opportunities to those of high verbal intelligence, and will give more striking results to people who use it in a way that makes information autonomous, that is, original, complex, puzzling, exploratory. This is not a conspiracy by an elite. I can see that, for the generally rejected, the scene must look like a conspiracy of the intelligent. But, that is like saying the music world is a conspiracy of the musical.

Roberts eliminates from his “intense lens” about 80 poets whom Palmer discusses. This is the key process underlying his anthology. But he never discusses them. They are silenced and that act is itself wrapped in silence. There is a message here – the vital stuff is not recorded and you can’t make it speak. You can sort of see a stain where it was, a discolouration with no features preserved. Yes, something happened.

I can control the level of names and texts without being able to control the more abstract level of causality. I got into this to refute ideas about a metropolitan takeover of poetry in the early 20th C (say 1920 to 1940), but I can’t conclusively refute them. I find them unconvincing but the data doesn't really give enough to confine the ambiguities down to one possibility. Another line is the lack of dialogue. Palmer and Roberts both wrote at about the same time, and about where poetry was, and was going. They are on opposite sides. But they both ignore the other side – they select topics where they know they can win. If they both addressed the same topic, we would have a stereo view, and we could get a grasp of what happened. But they don’t. They avoid areas of vulnerability. The fact that you can’t find any questions which Palmer and Roberts both answer suggests that the extent of what is not being discussed is endlessly larger than what is being said. But the part which is never discussed is what we can’t recover. I can’t imagine that what we do have is going to answer the questions we want to raise. My conclusion is that 99% of the cultural field is never verbalised, and so remains unconscious for us, as it was left unconscious by the involved critics at the time of the events.

Palmer, writing 2 years after Roberts' anthology, refutes more or less everything Roberts says. So, there was a competitive process. Roberts, and Eliot, didn't just declare victory and start erasing the record of anything else. There was plenty of opposition, and the market could choose from a range of different poets and different poetics. Most poets active in 1930 were forgotten by 1970, but probably because they stopped producing and their readers died off. Roberts, and Allott, won, but only after decades had passed and the contest had ceased to interest most people.

I don't want to reconstruct the poets Roberts erases. The exceptions are Aldington and Macleod – both dedicated modernists. I can't explain why Macleod’s career petered out, although it was quite obvious to him (and his archive has a typescript labelled “posthumous poems of Joseph Macleod” dated 1936 – when he was 33), and although I know quite a lot about his poetry, after spending time with his unpublished typescripts. The process is not inscribed in the typescript like some kind of watermark. It’s good to scrutinise some documents closely, but the underlying process remains enigmatic.
Donald Hall’s intro to the revised edition of Roberts’ book remarks that what reached Britain in poetry was not modernism but modernity. This is probably what most people would say. "The English came late to modern art, in painting and sculpture and music and poetry. 1936 is late for a book which introduces people to Hopkins and Yeats and Eliot. Sometimes I wonder if England ever came to modern art at all." So Hall in 1961 doesn't think that Roberts' flagship book has won the game - the English market has said no.
I think, tangibly, that Roberts was wrong to exclude Edward Thomas, and Allott was wrong to exclude Charles Causley. The market corrected their mistakes.

My interpretation of the shift of taste around 1920 is that it represented a shift of the borders of embarrassment. The new literati found all kinds of things embarrassing which the reading market up till then had found attractive. There is no chance of recovering what this shift was, because it was not obvious to the principals involved that it had taken place: they viewed it as a world of poetry moving into meaninglessness. It did not occur to them that it was a change in the observer rather than the thing observed. It was a narrowing of taste; responses to a range of poetry switched off. This could be defined as a restriction of emotional range – the growth of inhibition. That could be a result of self-centredness, a lack of life experience – in fact connected to status, and the attitudes of undergraduates at a moment when only 2% of any year-group went to university. But that can’t be proved, and anyway it is only one part of a ‘revolution of taste’ that involved several parts. It was certainly linked to privatisation and the cutting of bonds to a social group. It said No to a lot of obsolescent kitsch.

Roberts’ introduction has quite a lot about Hopkins and Arthur Hugh Clough, both of them dead decades before. He creates a scene in which Hopkins and Clough are ancestors of modernity, and the other 99% of the Victorian scene vanishes into oblivion. This is a conspiracy theory from the inside. The implication is that only 1% of what is present in 1936 really counts– bad news for everyone else to hear. This story relies on almost everybody losing their stake. It also colludes with a social pattern in which only 1 or 2% of the population has university education. But, the idea is also that this modernity is part of future culture, and that everyone, in particular everyone young, can join in with it – and end up on the winning side.
Most people who write poetry are on the outside of the business and aren't going to get into the authorising anthologies. It would be inhuman not to be unhappy about the fact of exclusion, or to enjoy its process. It is such a large part of the human experience of the poetry scene. At this point we have to return to Herbert Palmer and admire him for giving detailed, carefully observed, empathetic evaluations of the famous 80 poets whom Roberts cheerfully threw overboard. I am not rushing out to read them all, but it is good that Palmer gave them attention, and it is good if someone does that for marginalised poets of the last 30 years, for example. Concretely, he devotes six pages to J. Redwood Anderson (1883-1964). I don’t think you are going to replace Eliot and Auden with J. Redwood. I didn’t like his poetry that much (although paradoxically, I would like to read at least one more book of his, one I couldn't find). But Palmer gives us the vital information. He says Anderson was totally neglected even in 1938. He was the original Hull poet. Palmer quotes him:

I saw instead
The cone
Of a gyrating, black, immense,
Tumultuous cyclone.
And there were cannon-bursts of pain
And spears of agony that pierced
Its multitudinous thunder; there were cries
Of formidable triumph, and the call
Of mighty laughter and shattered gales of song;
And under all
The long
Surge of titanic effort.

(The description is of a city; 'cyclone' could also be a vortex.) This isn't bad, but it doesn't mean he could write a whole book. I can't name the poem this comes from, but to make up I can observe that it is an echo of Emile Verhaeren.

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