Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Further notes on “Nothing is Being Suppressed”

Further notes on “Nothing is Being Suppressed”

These are some more peripheral notes to a book on British poetry in the 1970s, which is going to come out in 2021.

I found some notes (from 1994 maybe?) on Martin Booth’s Driving Through the Barricades. It is a history of British poetry from 1964 to 1984. I didn’t reproduce Booth’s argument because I regard his book as necessary – I don’t need to repeat it. His story focuses on live performances – they were what made poetry writing come back to life, so that written poetry became interesting again. Small magazines amplified this because they had a very quick turn-round and were super open to new work – they were “almost live”, and dialogic, and social. So he has a vast network of readings sites as his subject, and he describes many of them, and the kind of person who would go there. He must have been giving dozens of readings himself, exciting experiences which make you hypersensitive to audience mood. He describes a boom. Things were good. He wanders the land being applauded. More than that, he applauds the audience. He’s right. But he has a tragic view of how it developed: he refers to "the end of the exciting era from approximately 1964 to 1974" and, "In Britain, poetry has gone from being largely sterile to immensely virile and has returned to sterility within a decade and a half." - that would cover 1964 to 1979. He names a turning point: “It [Second Aeon] stopped and the decline and rot set into British verse soon after. It is justified to feel that the demise of Finch's astounding enterprise led to the slowdown of the art.” This in early 1974. Crucially, the readings circuit collapsed in the mid-70s. And, there is a 1974 MacSweeney interview where he also discusses the collapse of the readings circuit as an established fact. Finch probably was the most talented editor of the entire period.
I have a feeling that Booth regarded what he saw and heard as being History Itself. But, every Friday night when he was at a reading getting into the ambience, there were a dozen other readings happening elsewhere which he wasn't at. So he wasn’t seeing history. But, other people may also have mistaken their direct experience for being the whole story, over the whole country. We can’t use their results.
I think Booth’s own career may have hit a ceiling – not crashed and burnt, just hit a ceiling. He couldn't get a deal with a major publisher. And he began writing much less.
If you look at the row at the Poetry Society in the first months of 1977, this is three years after Booth says the scene had crashed into the kerb. So it may be that the row, with Eric losing his job as editor of Poetry Review, 14 people resigning from the Poetry Society committee, may not have been a significant moment. It was emotional for those 15 people and some more who were their entourage, their bag-holders and advisers, but if Booth is right it came within a cultural comedown which was already at full bore, and it probably didn’t change the situation for poets or audiences everywhere else – except at the noise-filled Earls Court building. Conflict around one magazine does not scale up into a historical turning point.
Did it all go wrong at that point? Well, possibly it didn’t all go wrong at any point. I have yet to hear someone say that their ability to work collapsed after March 1977. So I am waiting for evidence that anybody’s work collapsed. And if the work kept on pouring out, what was there to complain about? that the Arts council doesn't love you?
My feel is that there was a collapse. But, this represents the 'plot curve' of someone getting high in the foreglow of a future of total liberation, the overflow of equity, pure self-expression, transformed personal relations. It was actually too much. But a high is followed by a comedown – a physical necessity. The bigger the high, the bigger the comedown. But I don’t think this happened simultaneously to everybody, in every city, on the banks of every river. I think getting politicised, or getting poeticised, was like falling in love – people were falling into it all the time. Everyone is 18 once and there are always more 18 year olds coming along, with stars in their eyes. The Comedown is one of the big stories of the Seventies– but it didn’t happen in a particular month. The Poet's Yearbook counts 706 new books for the 1977-8 year (June to June). That is a dip from 906 in their previous count year. Yes, there is a dip. The temperature of these complete statistics is much lower - nothing so dramatic as Collapse or Comedown shows up in them. Maybe the dip was just the effect of inflation, out of control at this point. Consumers felt the products were over-priced, even if that was just a perceptual lag. 706 titles is still a lot of activity – and much more than the figure for 1970. If you list the books that came out in 1979 and 1980, the list looks great, the joint is jumping. The heat goes up and down, it doesn’t go down and stay there. Every individual goes up and down. The publication figures zigzag up and down – there is just too much data. It’s all real but it doesn't play a tune.

I find it hard to evaluate Booth’s poetry. He did get a full-scale book out with Bloodaxe in 1983 – but then he wasn’t included in their flagship anthology, Poetry with an edge. (At least the edition I have.) So he had a gift but something went wrong. I read several of his books for ‘Suppressed’ but I didn’t think he had got there. I am sure he did lots of readings, but the problem with the poems may be that he simplified to make maximum impact in the live situation, so that the work seems shallow and obvious on the page. It is almost terrific, yes.

A question which puzzled me is, Why isn't 70s Alt poetry political? I took out a lot of stuff about politics because I couldn’t find evidence linking it to poetry.

I think the sense that everything was arbitrary was conducive to a conclusion that the present state of society was infinitely arbitrary and so infinitely unstable.

Also, at some level the belief in free association as the core condition of the poems must have equated to a belief in social and moral freedom.

The lack of discussion of current affairs in poetry (or at least in the poetry I find interesting to read) is a sign that poetry was looking at other scenes than the churn of day to day politics. I asked if you could find out about the 1976 governmental resort to the IMF, for an emergency loan, and couldn't find any mention. Similarly, you can’t find out from poems that there were four prime ministers during the decade. Poetry may be interested in variant ways of organising society, but it is not interested in what the government or the balance of payments is doing. So it was pointless for me to write several chapters about politics.

I think we have to imagine a hidden stratum A which contained ideas of transformation and widened experience, and of which poetry and radical politics were two separate developments. A9 and A27, we could call them. The two developments didn’t contradict one another, but the politicos didn’t necessarily have anything interesting to say to poets (or even understand 20th C poetry). The goal of radical political change was to reach a new state of mind, and this state would have been vacuous and useless if it hadn't already existed in the here and now. Representing it was what 70s poetry was doing, I think, but to be enjoyed rather than, primarily, as a call to arms. Politicos tended to want people to think the same thing and feel the same thing, at the same moment, and poets weren’t into this in any form. If the project is to make your own life unpredictable to you, so that consciousness will be switched on at every moment, it doesn't make sense to imagine uniformity, and this undermines the sociological knowledge which accepts that people are predictable, as the basis for generalisations which then become the charter for political theories. All that knowledge dissolves if people are acting in a liberated way.
A “figure” common to much of Alt poetry is the experimental landscape, in which the reader/ candidate is dissolved out of their everyday self and put through a series of tasks, or perhaps tests, which call on unused talents and unused areas of psychological knowledge. The nature of the tasks is not obvious, and the nature of the solutions has to be worked out. By going into an environment like this, the reader gains the sense that where they are is not binding on them, and acquires strength in dealing with the unknown. This relates rather directly to the way daily life is conducted, and to transformation and liberation. Groups can change but individuals can also change on their own – in the “society of the artwork”. I suspect some readers feel that they fail the tests – or do not want to start them in the first place.

I think that 70s poetry aimed for a stable state of high association, the mind ringing as if a musical instrument. It was a stable state even if the pattern of symbolic links was changing all the time. This state was the goal, instead of a set of preset outcomes in some didactic programme. It is the same for all the poems (and this is a notion of what the Era Style was).

If you compare the alternative poetry of the time to the traditional poetry, it becomes clear that being anti-authoritarian, and challenging knowledge structures which support authority, are two vital features of the former, distributed throughout the entire text. This is clear without being explicitly said, for the most part. But it connects to dissolving your own acquired and repeated reactions, rather than to the case of a specific strike, a specific factory closure, or whatever real issue is being argued about in the political world. The “thrill” of modern poetry was missing from the legacy poetry, and it feels like this thrill was, therefore, to do with the anti-authoritarian thing. Something I didn’t bring up in the book was how the new poetry could seem like a mockery when in your own life was, due to functioning in a job which demanded repetition and predictability as parts of efficiency, free consciousness was unavailable and even dangerous. For me, writing poetry made endless freedom to create patterns available, but daily work entailed the opposite and was clearly going to be an abiding necessity. It would have been, still is, ridiculous to renounce artistic freedom because economic success means becoming functional. My suspicion is that effective patterns in government and law follow the line of economics in demanding simplicity, predictability, efficiency. They are not the domain of freedom.
I found it difficult to chisel out specific political messages from the poetry I looked at. I concluded that if I described a great deal of poetry, at length, then the reference of each poem to political ideas, possibilities, contradictions, or even (exceptionally) facts, would reveal local facts from which the overall pattern would emerge; and I didn’t have to engage in tortuous explications of symmetries between complex shapes in either sphere of activity.

Peter Porter’s poetry reviews in the Observer turned up a lot of names I hadn't heard of – he had a wide intake. He refers at one point to someone not in the book he was reviewing – VC Horwell, he wonders what she’s doing. Horwell was “Veronica Horwell”, and she was in Faber Poetry Introduction 1, in 1969. She stopped then, I mean she may have published some poems decades later, but she wasn’t a full-time poet. She was, or is, a lifestyle journalist, you can actually make a living at that. Take this poem ‘The Jug’:

The jug squatted on the table:
Given by a girl from Bethnal Green
With three lovers and an analyst.
But the jug was found on a farm.

In its melon belly
Pregnant by generation of windowsills
Hummed June afternoons in lazy basses;
Whistled the crystal skylark of ice;
Danced the syncopated patter of rain.

An adman stole my jug
Or bought it
Spilt its liquid on his cigarettes,
Poured out its glories on dairy ice cream.

A frugal man who wasted nothing.
When empty he used it for a prop
For a pine kitchen selling prime pork pies.


This is such vivid writing. If a jug can be so interesting, a poem can too, but only if written by someone intelligent. She is fascinated and detached about the jug, and that is certainly more than most poets can manage. It is irritating to think that she stopped then. But it’s not tragic – people only write poetry because they have nothing better to do.
That Faber series includes 4 issues between 1969 and 1979, and they contain 33 poets. Born in the 1940s, roughly. They could stand as a “new generation of the mainstream”. It is usual to compare young Alternative poets with middle-aged mainstream poets, but you get different results if you drag that younger generation of the mainstream onto stage. There is a technical problem, that Faber captures them at the start of their careers – the Introductions are not their best work, you would have to locate their first book, or perhaps their second book. Still, it’s clear that in the 70s you have a generation of Alternative poets and a generation of new conventional poets, and they don’t overlap – and maybe their readerships don’t overlap. David Perkins speaks of the pessimistic 50s generation as dominating British poetry for thirty years (he was writing in 1987) – well, maybe the industry didn’t want to make room for younger poets. I am doubtful about “dominating”, but I would concede that part of the history of the time is a progressive crumbling of the eminence and credibility of poets like Larkin, Tomlinson, or Gunn. The Faber series shows a stage in that – their poets just aren't interested in the Fifties style. (Or, 80% of them aren't.)

Having written about Sorley MacLean's poem "The cave of gold", I feel obliged to cite Ronald Black's review of it, which yields all kinds of ideas I hadn't seen at all:
"MacLean’s ‘Uamha ’n Òir’ (‘The Cave of Gold’) appears at first to have been one of his late poems. It was written, or at least reworked, in the 1970s. It refers to a very old legend which was found in pretty much every part of the Highlands and Islands where a cave on one side of a hill or mountain was believed to connect with a cave on the other. The legend always has it that a piper marched into the cave at one end, that he could be heard playing his pipes far underground, and that the sound stopped halfway, but that his dog appeared out of the cave at the other end with its hair singed off, revealing that his master had come off the worse in some encounter with evil. In this case the cave is explicitly stated to be in Dùis MhicLeòid, ‘MacLeod’s Land’ in Skye, and the people involved are MacCrimmons. There are basically three sections — one which describes the original legend, one which tells how another piper tries his luck in the same way, and one which draws a conclusion. The poem may be approached as history, as biography, as autobiography, or as a combination of these. As history, the first section presumably describes some early MacCrimmon, and the second describes Dòmhnall Bàn, who was killed in the Rout of Moy in March 1746. As autobiography, the first section presumably describes the poet as a young man, the second the poet in his maturity. In Dòmhnall Bàn’s case the cave becomes a metaphor for foretold death, suicide even: chaidh a’ ghalla ’na cheann / ’s ’na chridhe, ‘the bitch went into his head / and his heart’.
The poem is extremely difficult, and in this we are not helped by the poet, who was habitually economical with punctuation and whose translations were notoriously over-literal. As an experiment, I will present five stanzas of the poem, all except the fifth in three different forms: first the original, with my own punctuation added; then MacLean’s translation; then my own translation, done in my usual style, which I would describe as offering a modicum of rhythm and explanation. I have chosen these stanzas because they contain almost the only hard evidence for the subject-matter in the form of two references to the blind catechist Donald Munro (1773–1830), a one-time fiddler who not only gave up playing the instrument after his conversion but is said to have gone around making bonfires of bagpipes and fiddles wherever he found them. I begin in the middle of the first section, in which the poet expresses wonder that anyone should wish to leave such a paradise as the old Land of MacLeod, but admits that the motive is greed for the gold rumoured to be in the cave[.]"
What other things did I leave out?

I can’t record a debate about poetics which didn’t occur. But, in the cause of nostalgia, let’s pick up a few voices from the time. Nuttall was reviewing “alternative” (then called “small press”) poetry for the Guardian from 1979 to 1981, and I was able to pick up some of these reviews from on-line copies of old Guardians.
Jeff Nuttall: “If there is one characteristic which indicates a main line of development in contemporary British poetry it is the technique of making a poem from disparate material. Poems made thus derive their impact from contrasts built into the structure of the poem itself rather than from references to other things. The effect of the poems springs not from what is being said but from the way in which the various things being said react on each other. The dynamic achieved may be muted as in Paul Brown or it may be violent as in Barry MacSweeney’s Odes. […] The power of perception underlying political conviction and impeccable professional accuracy in this work is stunning[.] The technique of disparity has its roots in Zurich rather than in Black Mountain College. In a sense, to give the poem’s structure pre-eminence over its subject is exactly the opposite course from allowing what is to be said to find its own form spontaneously as it does in speech.[…] The “breath line” as Olsen called it ranges from athletic rhetoric to asthmatic squibs of observation to artfully tailored work in regular stanzas.” [September, 1979]
Nuttall, again: “Art is misunderstood in this century because what is its main aspect, cultural sabotage, is treated as entertainment. The fireworks are Molotov cocktails. Uneasy applause follows the burst of machine gun fire from the podium. […] Delirium, real, emulated, or contrived, is a main tool of the poet. Syntax is dismantled either as a result of, or as a means to, delirium. Paul Matthews' essay, The Grammar of Darkness, ranks with […] as a statement of the reason for this. “If I define the universe as meaning we must realise the paradox in this: a poetry of hints and riddles, no longer just in the sounding. The silence too is recognised. 'A frog jumps in', and we listen to the ripple of it long after the words have died away. A poetry with hollows in it, pause and hiatus, to admit the universe. Form always merging, never fixed, formed and chaotic at the same time, allowing for interventions. A language turning into music, playing between sense and nonsense, (they both limit the language). A poetry which has come to the end of itself (and so come close to its beginnings). Thrown back into the crucible.“ (November 1979)
The gap between what Matthews says and the gloss that Nuttall puts on it is very surprising. My impression is that Nuttall had little interest in the poetry he was reviewing. Sometime in 2019 I went to an exhibition about the influence of the Bauhaus, at the Contemporary gallery here in Nottingham, and there was a section on the art course at Leeds Polytechnic which mentioned Nuttall. This may advise us. He was a teacher of rather arrogant late adolescents, very alert about stylistic distinctiveness and daring, and he had to compete with them to avoid being written off as a “compromised adult teacher” figure. And he did compete with them. They regarded Modernism as a gold standard, especially the more anti-bourgeois element of it. So he had a set style of extremism. His descriptions, just quoted, are heroic, but they have little to do with English poetry. His view of the time is not worth writing up, as one of the competing versions, because his interest in what he was reviewing is so limited. He is remembered as a good teacher of “general culture” for art students. The Telegraph did an article on this course headed “Progressive art or subsidised freak-out?”
I don’t think 70s poetry was “cultural sabotage”. Is culture the sabotage of culture? I met Paul Matthews in 2019 and he promised to send me a copy of The Grammar of Darkness. I knew he wasn’t going to send it to me. I didn’t try to ask him “what was it like in 1974”, because it was obviously a major effort to roll back 45 years. It was one of those moments in Dorset when you don’t get a breakthrough for your book. That quote from his essay sounds like hippy language. Students in 1979, still in the punk era, would have hated that. But the quote is very interesting. The tone is serene and empathetic, and this is what I like in 70s poetry. Nuttall's reviews were my first glimmering that small press poetry existed. It was something the media didn't cover. But since the publications he described were not in the bookshops, or in the Poetry Library, I couldn't access them. I really reached that poetry about ten years later.

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