Wednesday, 9 December 2020

I don't know why

I don’t know why

Have been reading David Perkins’ A History of Modern Poetry, the second volume – 1925 to 1976, roughly. Published 1987. This is designed to be a standard work and achieves that, I believe. I just want to discuss two passages expressing one judgment. So at p.419 he says that poems were horrified by “Dachau and Hiroshima”, “yet the impact of the horrors on sensibility was less than that of the Labourite revolution. Poets favoured this revolution, but the social transformation was too peaceful, many-sided, and far-reaching to evoke any simple attitude or emotion, and the frame of mind of most poets was critically reflective, not only with respect to the social changes but pervasively in personal life“ so that “The 1950s were the heyday of the so-called Movement.” and at p. 426 “If a poet were mindful of his readers, Enright explained, he would be more likely to ‘restrain his oddities’. Socialist criteria for literature fused quite amazingly with the Augustan ideal of the polite monde, the homogeneous, educated, refined audience that would hold in check an individual writer’s crankiness and obsession.”
I don’t feel this is true. Actually, I don’t think anyone in Britain would find it true. The equation of “monotony” with “welfare state” is just a tatter of worn-out Cold War propaganda. If you define the Soviet Union as the core of monotony and lack of individual self-expression, then socialism means cultural monotony. But there was no “writers’ union” controlling literature in Britain, or in other Western European countries. People could express themselves all they wanted to. Even more obviously, there was a Conservative government in power in 1951 to 1964, the period of “Formalism” and Christian revival in Britain. It wouldn't occur to anybody (except a foreigner) that socialism was cracking the whip in cultural matters, during that time.
I don’t think Perkins’ judgement on this is credible. I don’t think there is even one Movement poem which is pro-Labour. But what interests me is how you would test and prove a statement like that. It’s fine to say ”this just doesn't sound right, move on”, but if you ask for objective and documentary proof then it gets difficult. I am interested in this because the problem applies to most cultural judgements. Of course, the difficulty is with making a claim of causality which applies to the entire cultural field. It is legitimate to think that you can trace one writer’s course (in favourable circumstances), while having doubts about generalisations covering one thousand (or, several thousand) writers.
I want to emphasise that Perkins is right in describing a manner of poetry which was practised in shockingly similar ways by many poets, and which was depressing and anti-artistic. Further, that there was a world of critics who defined this as normal and anything else as Dissident and morally suspect. He is quite right about the foreground phenomena, I am just doubtful about his version of the invisible and abstract realm, that of causality.
I have completed a study of British poetry from 1960 to 1997. It was long-term, taking 18 years. It finished 10 years ago, but I am still clearing up side issues. This could, then, be the moment where I move on to grand generalisations – having got all the data cells populated, I could see big overall patterns. But I just feel cold towards that level of statement. The evidence doesn't form big coherent patterns. No, it wriggles around and the people involved seem to have exercised autonomy and consciousness – freedom, dare I use that word.

Perkins at p.445 says that he can’t rapidly sum up the Movement style, but then does that and describes an “occasionally satirical poetry, suspicious of human nature and saturated with life’s pain, that has been dominant in Britain for the past thirty years”. This probably refers to institutional dominance, of university departments and “quality” magazines (Critical Quarterly?), but common opinion is that a dissident wing was present after 1965, or even after 1960, and since Perkins evidently thinks the dominant poetry was very limited, it would seem sensible to give most of his pages over to the dissidents. The “dominance” needs significant qualification even if we accept it as fact. For example Faber did 4 volumes of “Poetry Introduction” between 1969 and 1981. The 33 previously (more or less) unpublished poets included in this showcase can be taken as “the new mainstream poets of the 1970s”. Faber was the cultural centre, clearly. But none of them can be situated as Fifties-style, Movement poets. So “dominance” needs qualifying, as a term.

It is fairly clear that in the 1920s and 1930s the share of women in the dataset of published poetry was rather small. This may be the most striking, gross-level, feature of the poetic landscape. It is an aspect which we would find very interesting to discuss, now in 2020. It looks as if the trade (industry?) will settle down with a majority of poets being female, and you can see reasons why that would be stable and self-sustaining. If 73% of A-level English Literature students are female, you might expect writing poems, which is a related form of behaviour (I would think) would be also be predominantly female. One of the reasons why I read large and well-researched books like Perkins’ (692 pages including index) is to get access to source evidence about this kind of thing. But he never comments on it. The “society of the poem” maintained a gender ratio of 85:15 (varying over time) but did not make the processes supporting this explicit. Activists blithely talk about discouragement, but concrete examples of it seem rare to non-existent. We have highly persuasive narratives of how this ratio was set in place, but given how silent the evidence is we have to ask if these narratives are accurate in any way. Maybe the narratives fail but resolve anxiety and let us move on to something else. I find it credible that there was a vast current of distrust of women poets, large enough to affect the response to every individual female poet, but that there was a taboo on stating this, explicitly and in print. This would explain why you can't collect evidence for it. I would be genuinely surprised to hear anyone say that there was no prejudice against women poets in the period 1900 to 1950. Sometimes you have to bypass the documentary evidence.
I have been rereading the big social histories of the 1950s and 1960s by David Kynaston and Peter Hennessey. These are incredibly impressive, they are convincing beyond the point where you even want to pick holes in them. They are the ultimately satisfying and substantial account of the national past. Dominic Sambrook’s work is less perceptive but equally large-scale, and complementary. Much of what they say does offer satisfactory answers to the reason “why”. I am not expressing pessimism about finding causes at any point in history. But if we grasp the sociology of the new housing estates, in 1955 and the years around it, it is because amazingly perceptive sociologists went and spent months studying them, recovering the reactions of the people directly involved. They did the work. Maybe there weren't enough such people. Anyway, there is no sociology of poetry. I can certainly imagine sending out 500 questionnaires, in 1955, asking “Why is your poetry so unoriginal?” - good luck with that! Poets apparently supply first-person statements which make the visits of sociologists unnecessary, but you can only use their printed statements if you are asking the questions which they wanted to answer. The problem isn’t in retrieving what poets said about their achievements, just in recovering any real processes from underneath all the narcissism.
Of 100 questions you want to ask, only one is answered in the rather boastful and aestheticised utterances of poets. When I say “unconscious” I don’t mean perfectly irrational. I just mean that the “dossier” of interviews, articles, etc. leaves them out. In fact I have the impression that the “dossier” anticipates critical questions and is impelled by a wish to cover over these questions and expel them from awareness. We are supposed to forget all about them. This wash of words is warm, it is disposed to lower our awareness rather than to raise it. To ask why a hundred Fifties-style poets were unoriginal, we have to supply material which they never uttered and which in fact they denied the existence of. This is the "unconscious” of the system. A silent realm. But, how can we disprove a theory which starts out from a lack of evidence?

New Lines had 6 poets from Oxford and 3 from Cambridge. My suggestion about the monotony of Fifties poetry is that little poetry was being published and that there was a very small educated elite, and that poets simply assimilated to a stylistic model which was accepted as expressing that elite. Twenty years later, the graduate class was much larger and more style models were tolerated inside it. Gortschacher gives interesting ideals about the decline of poetry magazines, because of inflation in the price of paper (for example).
As for the austerity, the whole period 1940-55 was a period of rationing, first because of enemy action destroying shipping carrying food and later because of restricting civilian consumption in order to pay for the cost of the war (and rebuilding bombed cities). This self-denial made people suspicious. The moral pessimism of the poets treats self-denial as a virtue and derives social authority from taking up the function of supervision of collective self-denial. I think the absence of literary pleasure from these poems is amazing but it goes along with an amazing lack of enjoyment of any material pleasures – the two things are connected. The historians are agreed that civilian consumption was recovering in the second half of the Fifties – everything changed. But the poets of this style stuck with qualities which they had accepted as virtues. The phase of austerity – hunger and cold, to put it crudely, a lack of new clothes and housing to move into, as well – was all part of fighting off the Third Reich, and nothing to do with realising socialist ideals.
So, these are part of the field. But the total number of causes is large.
I like to ask “why” but I think the state of evidence makes it hard to reply in most cases. There are reasons for sticking at the descriptive stage. Maybe rather than explore the mysteries of sociology we should produce entry-level reviews of another ten poets.
I realise that the reason I like thinking about the 1950s is that really very few poets were publishing. Because there are so few pieces on the board, it is easy to think about them and so it is a pleasant activity. I am afraid that the corollary of this is that thinking about much richer eras, where the answers would be more valuable, is difficult and inconclusive.

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